Tag Archives: history

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.

bozena-cover

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.

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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.

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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.

Step Aside, Pops

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Step Aside, Pops

Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton is a collection of Hark! A Vagrant webcomics. The collection was published in 2015 by Drawn & Quarterly, though the webcomic started in 2007.

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Beaton’s collection is entirely in black and white. The drawings are what some might call “cartoon-y” or haphazard, but the style fits the content in a way that emphasizes the playfulness of the messages, and the speedy nature of today’s society. Everything is fast and on a deadline, thus Beaton’s drawing style reflects that.

The basis of the messages, however, comes from a place of knowledge. Beaton explains, “When I get asked to describe my comics, the easiest thing to say is that it is historical or literary or pop-culture parodies.” Therefore, if you don’t know what she is referencing, some of the comics will be lost on you–a potential downfall of the collection. For instance, I didn’t understand anything in the “Kokoro” comic, which went on for 37 frames. I couldn’t grasp the humor because I don’t know the original material. Then again, Beaton is aiming for an educated audience that is going to snicker along with her, so if you are the reader she has in mind, Step Aside, Pops is a collection you will enjoy. There wasn’t much that I didn’t get in the collection, so I was a happy reader.

Beaton explains some of her comics with snarky lines in regular type at the bottom of the page. So, if you know nothing about “The Rum Rebellion,” she’ll fill you in:

Here is our old friend William Bligh. I say old friend because you probably know him from Mutiny on the Bounty already, not because we are personal acquaintances (he is dead). It is easy to find Bligh in the history books–you just follow a breadcrumb trail of temper tantrums.

Personally, I’d never heard of Bligh, yet this particular comic is easy enough to follow and find funny. Beaton’s extra explanation that Bligh is dead (it’s obvious from Bligh’s Napoleon-esque outfit) gives her asides a snarkiness that creates a connection with the reader.

Most pieces are only 3-6 frames long, making it easy to pick up and put down this book if you only have a minute. The comics that parody novels are the longest, and I found them the most humorous because my several English degrees let me in on the joke. Beaton’s parody of Wuthering Heights was one of my favorites because Beaton zeros in on the tragedy of Heathcliff, giving him a Mr. Hyde-like depiction.

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Does it bite? Hark, a vagrant: 353

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Out, ye living stink! Hark, a vagrant: 323

I love the strange cruelty Beaton adds, such Heathcliff’s despair being waved away, as if he were a stray dog that got in the house after rolling in turds. In fact, Heathcliff is so low he should be licking the turds, not rolling in them.

My favorite history comic is called “The Black Prince.” Though I don’t know the story of this person, the comic was, again, inclusive enough to make it funny. Beaton adds current culture (fist bumping, calling all men “bro”) and combines it with a medieval setting. Brilliant!

The most interesting combination of pop culture and history was when Beaton put the Founding Fathers in a mall. If you’ve ever experienced your dad or husband waiting on any available chair while holding your purse and/or purchases, you’ll laugh.

I had a lot of fun reading Step Aside, Pops. Many of the comics can be found on the author’s Hark! A Vagrant website, though having them all together in a hardcover book was nice, too! Actually getting the book supports this author so that she can continue to draw, parody, and make our hearts giggle.

 

Bright-Sided

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brightsided“Keep Calm and Stay Positive.”

“Everyday is a second chance.”

“S.M.I.L.E.–See Miracles in Life Everyday.”

“Positive Mind. Positive vibes. Positive life.”

I ask myself, what do positive quotes teach us, other than “every day” and “everyday” are used interchangeably without fail? Barbara Ehrenreich, a highly credible journalist with 16 books under her belt and whose work appears in college textbooks, must have asked a similar question before she started writing Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. Published in 2009 by Metropolitan Books, Bright-Sided is the examination of positive thinking, both in the individual and how it became a product, and how positive thinking developed and changed the American landscape. Ehrenreich uses personal anecdotes, along with dozens of sources, to examine the bad side of happy. Early on, Ehrenreich defines “positive thinking” for readers, establishing her key term so that everyone works with the same definition. This move demonstrates the willingness to reach out to her audience and clarify the abstract term.

Bright-Sided is an academic text, though the content affects the average American–especially the blue- and white-collar workers. The diction is complicated at times, and I see the moves Ehrenreich makes to integrate and effectively use sources. Of course, I am an English professor, so understanding rhetorical moves is part of my job. However, I can see how the book would turn off some readers for its level of difficulty.

Bright-Sided is a book many will shun for the subject matter alone. Americans love happiness. But Ehrenreich’s credibility is not to be pushed aside. First, the author’s impressive resume establishes her credibility; she is someone we should listen to because she’s devoted her life to uncovering unfair practices in the United States. Secondly, the author isn’t only a journalist; she has a PhD in biology, from which she lends expertise to examine happiness peddlers who claim that biology and happiness are related, and explaining equations that don’t actually work in the laws of science. Thirdly, Ehrenreich uses personal anecdotes from her experience with breast cancer.

The author describes the way cancer patients are told that a positive attitude can help their survival rate, but then supports her theory that positive thinking is useless by quoting studies that find positive-minded patients are no more likely to beat cancer than those who aren’t. The only people who benefit from positive attitudes in the cancer ward, says Ehrenreich, are the nurses and family members, who are worn down by sadness and death.

The author also investigates breast cancer charities and how they (possibly unintentionally) infantilize women. Everything is pink, supporters buy teddy bears, and female patients are given care packages that include crayons. Ehrenreich wonders if men are given the same tools of self-expression. Though there aren’t as many studies and quotes in this section, the author’s curious attitude and personal experience make her argument believable.

One thing many “positive thinking” coaches tell their clients is to avoid the news. Ehrenreich furthers her argument that positive thinking is undermining American by pointing out that news allows its consumers to make change, petition, or even maintain awareness. Sure, you may be sad, but you can also send money to funds after a natural disaster, for example, to help those in need. Ignorance doesn’t benefit anyone, except the ignorant person. Looking at news consumption helps the author solidify her point that Americans are weakened by the desire to be happy no matter what.

After her personal anecdote and researching the business of selling happiness, Ehrenreich steps back to look at the source of positive thinking in America: Calvinism. People were so depressed due to their restrictive religion that practically forbids happiness that their feelings manifested in bodily illness. Now, here is where things got confusing for me. If a positive attitude doesn’t lead to a more healthy physical state, why does depression cause bodily harm? I never found a satisfactory reason in Bright-Sided, but that may be due to the book getting more complex. Take this passage, for example, a response to “New Age” positive thinkers bringing quantum physics into the happiness debate:

In the words of Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann, this is so much “quantum flapdoodle.” For one thing, quantum effects comes into play at a level vastly smaller than our bodies, our nerve cells, and even the molecules involved in the conduction of neuronal impulses. Responding to What the Bleep Do We Know?, which heavily invokes quantum physics to explain the law of attraction, the estimable Michael Shermer notes that “for a system to be described quantum-mechanically, its typical mass (m), speed (v) and distance (d) must be on the order of Planck’s constant (h) [6.626 x 10 to the -34 power joule-seconds],” which is far beyond tiny.

If you stopped reading my quote, I’m not surprised. I have a basic understand of biology, but here Ehrenreich is asking the reader to follow along with a basic understanding of quantum physics, which I haven’t studied, nor do I recall learning about in physics class back in 12th grade. Who is the audience, I ask? Perhaps the author had faith that her readers would take her interpretation of Shermer’s quote (“which is far beyond tiny”) as is, and I understand that she’s basically saying that quantum theories can’t be applied to happiness because our bodies are too big (for what, I’m not sure), but I do know that I don’t like guessing at what an author means.

After her exploration of quantum physics and Calvanism, Ehrenreich discusses mega-churches. Here, I was engaged again. The thing I like best about Barbara Ehrenreich’s work is that she doesn’t only research her topic, she gets in there—good old-fashioned investigative journalism. So, there she is, in the mega-church, a place I find ridiculous for its distant relationship to church, a point Ehrenreich gets to. Mega-churches don’t have crosses or steeples or communion. They’re often set up in old warehouses, staff hundreds of people, and break out feel-good guitar music. The “pastor” isn’t necessarily a religious person, but rather a spiritual peddler. There is no requirement of seminary school or Bible study or anything, other than how to SELL. Selling happiness is what it’s about. The author brings in some bemusing and amusing claims from religious leaders of mega-churches, such as the “pastor’s” wife who didn’t have money for a plane ticket and prayed (or yelled at?) God to make that plane ticket ready when she got to the airport or else. The plane ticket is an example of the “laws of attraction” principle that positive thinkers apply to happiness. If you want it hard enough, if you think about it excessively, the thing you want (money, job, love, etc.) will know you’re putting your vibe out there and come to you. Ehrenreich isn’t poking fun at the woman; in fact, the author is always a bit distant, a requirement for a good journalist whose job is to deliver information, not distort it with personal bias.

At the end of this 235-page piece, Ehrenreich really hits her point home by looking at contemporary America, including how businesses bring in positive-thinking coaches and buy positive-thinking books for each of their employees, amounting to hundreds of books for some companies, causing works like Who Moved My Cheese? to hit the bestseller list. The funny thing is I remember my mom’s boss giving everyone Who Moved My Cheese? and reading it myself. Such books convince readers that being fired is just a “new opportunity” and that anger or sadness for losing a job is “whining.” We’ve shamed ourselves into being happy, essentially, and also made ourselves more careless:

Robert Reich once observed, a bit ambivalently, that “American optimism carries over into our economy, which is one reason why we’ve always been a nation of inventors and tinkerers, of innovators and experimenters….Optimism also explains why we spend so much and save so little….Our willingness to go deep into debt and keep spending is intimately related to our optimism.”

Again, Ehrenriech uses a source to support her claims that the desire to be happy all the time is weakening our country. In fact, she has 16 pages of end notes, for which I am impressed. When I look at my course textbook, essays are published without so much as a citation, for a reason unknown to me, but I do know that giving credit to sources bolsters Ehrenreich’s credibility and demonstrates the huge amount of research that went into the topic.

Lastly, the author looks at the flip side of the argument: if we shouldn’t be happy, are we supposed to be sad? No, the author argues. While these are polar emotions, they are not the only ones. Diligence is what keeps us from making stupid decisions. Notice how animals are always on alert, the author notes, and that if danger presents itself, animals in a group sound the alarm. The goal is to “see things as they are.” She notes the emphasis in college on critical thinking, which involves asking questions to get to the truth of things, and I can verify that lessons on critical thinking are in every Composition textbook I see. While I appreciated Ehrenreich’s response to how people should be, I wanted to see more of her sources. Mostly, she offers brief examples, such as how pilots don’t “hope” they can land the plane, and that politicians don’t cross their fingers to win an election; they work hard to make the reality they most desire happen. It’s in this final chapter that the author pulls way back on studies and anecdotes and hopes—maybe just a little—that her readers agree with reality as a better option than blind happiness.

*This book was procured from my public library. I have no personal nor professional relationship with the author.