Tag Archives: humor

Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

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Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I Do It with the Lights On #BookReview #NoBodyShame @WhitneyWay

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I Do It with the Lights On #BookReview #NoBodyShame @WhitneyWay

I Do It with the Lights On by Whitney Way Thore

published by Ballantine Books, 2016

Procured from my local library

Note: I have not watched My Big Fat Fabulous Life starring Whitney Way Thore. I heard about this book in the new FabUplus magazine.


*This book is part of my 2017 search to find positive representations of fat women in fiction or nonfiction, and that positive representation will not hinge on weight loss and falling in love. Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.


Thore’s book begins with some context and then heads into her youth. At five years old, her mother is informed that Thore needs to watch what she eats. As evidence, Thore includes photos throughout the book, such as a slender girl in her bathing suit next to the caption, “Rocking my bathing suit during the summer before my first diet.” In elementary school, Thore participates in soccer, dance, and swimming. She is labeled “baby beluga.”

Her photos show a healthy-looking young girl; her analysis demonstrates someone in mental torment:

The consensus was that my body was shame. My body embarrassed me.

Below: two dancing photos, four-year-old Whitney, and prom princess — all labeled fat by schoolmates and her father.

I found the photos particularly effective. Looking at my own photos I realize that when I thought I was fat, I look only slightly larger than everyone else around me. I don’t look at photos now and cringe at the change; I’m sad for the girl who hated herself so deeply, and in that way readers can create a personal connection with Thore.

Thore quickly became bulimic, and though many people know about it, no one does anything. In fact, at a special school all the girls get together and throw up. They celebrate for “a job well done.” Though detailing all the painful memories of youth can seem like a sob story in the wrong hands, Thore demonstrates how an obsession with weight can lead a young girl to a life of shame.

Readers who feel disgust at the fat body may think turning to healthy eating and exercise will fix everything. Thore works with nutritionists and trainers, she dances for hours per week. Unlike math, bodies are unpredictable. You can’t do X and always get Y, which frustrates the young woman. One person always checking in on Thore’s body is her father, whom she looks up to, but who might come off differently to readers:

One day in particular, as I was rushing out of the house for school, I told [my dad] I hadn’t lost any weight the previous day.

“Well, what did you eat yesterday?”

“A sandwich,” I told him.

“Well, tomorrow,” he suggested, “don’t eat a sandwich.”

Though she constantly forgives her father for his abusive remarks, it was hard for me to do so, too. Perhaps she doesn’t fully see how incremental he was to her eating disorder and self-hatred, but I don’t expect writers to fully know their lives by the end of a book. She may still be learning about her dad.

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I don’t love the full title. The “ten discoveries” part make it sound like a self-help book.

Before she discovers she must love her body to love herself, Thore struggles with chronic depression, polycystic ovarian syndrome, shame, and damaging comments. Thore fails out of college after she suffers depression and gains 50lbs in four months–the result of both inactivity/poor diet and a chronic illness. After she does graduate, Thore travels to South Korea to work as an English teacher. With her more advanced class, she goes over an article about obesity in relation to health problems. To test their comprehension, she asks:

“…what is one side effect of obesity?” A quiet, attentive student who went by the name Kerrick raised his hand.

With stone-cold seriousness he answered, “Suicide.”

His answer caught me so off guard that I laughed inappropriately. “Well, no…” I began. “The article doesn’t mention that. I’m obese, right?”

Twelve blank faces looked back at me, nodding.

“Do you think I will kill myself?”

Kerrick explained, “Teacher, maybe you have some depressions and maybe you want to die.”

This part of the memoir really struck me. It never occurred to me that other people would think fat men and women want to kill themselves.

My criteria for positive representations of fat women in fiction and nonfiction are all met in I Do It With The Lights On. Boyfriends don’t always make Thore happy, so she’s willing to break up with men. She works hard at all of her jobs, putting in more hours and effort than her colleagues (disposing of the “lazy” stereotype). She also details how weight loss takes up most of a woman’s time that could be dedicated elsewhere. For instance, when she returns from Korea after several years, her parents have her move into their house and abstain from employment so she can work on fitness. She’s counting calories and exercising with a personal trainer. Yes, you can lose 100lbs, but changing the body is a full-time job.

Thore is honest, too. Half way through the book she has still not discovered the body positive movement. She’s dedicated all of her hours to food and fitness. She notes:

Once I started to lose weight and saw how difficult it was for me to do so, I lost all sympathy for fat people who said they couldn’t lose weight . . .. I prided myself on being a different kind of fat person.

Here, Thore’s attitude reminded me of the 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl in which the fat characters compare one another. Instead of clinging to her attitude, Thore realizes she is delusional. Even when she is losing weight, society sees a fat women; it doesn’t matter if she’s just come from the gym. Society sees fat as a failure without any context.

Her honesty extends to her sex life. Thore seeks sexual partners for her own pleasure, but she doesn’t sleep with everyone she meets. Several pages are devoted to exploring both the flattery and objectification found in websites full of men seeking fat women to have sex with them, stand on them, or feed. Sexual relationships are presented respectfully, thank goodness. In Mona Awad’s book, you’d think fat people have sex with anyone.

One reason I wanted to find books about fat women is lack of representation. However, my quest is also to teach people of other sizes that they are privileged, not better. Fat people are asked to count calories and exercise daily so they’re better to look at. However, thin people are not questioned about their diets/physical activity, even if they eat poorly and are inactive, because they don’t look fat. Thore acknowledges she’s been on both sides of the aisle:

As a teenager, I wasn’t blind to the systematic sexualization of women . . . but I wasn’t as concerned with it because it was a system that benefited me. A young, privileged girl submits to the system by offering up her appearance as collateral, and she receives positive attention and affirmation in return for her willingness to play the game. As long as she stays obsessed with her appearance, making it a top priority, society will cheer her on for this and dole out validation accordingly.

At 130lbs in high school, Thore was praised when she dropped a few pounds. As a woman nearly 30 years old, at around 330lbs, she must prove every day she is smart, talented, cares, is valued, and deserves love.

Honest, analytical, and carefully constructed, Whitney Way Thore’s memoir is a must-read for those fighting in the #nobodyshame movement.

Troglodyte #bookreview #readwomen

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Troglodyte #bookreview #readwomen

Troglodyte by Tracy DeBrincat
published by Elixir Press, 2014

Tracy DeBrincat, whom we met in a Meet the Writer feature, writes characters that are people of the earth, the kind who will comment not on ideas, but appreciate bodily processes as something to which one should pay attention. Her stories take readers to a perhaps uncomfortable place we thought we left behind when we became “adults.” I still remember a joke my uncle told me when I was a kid: two woman are hoeing potatoes in the field when one woman pulls a potato from the ground, looks at it, and says, “This looks like my Issac’s taters.” The other woman responds, “That big?” and the first says, “No, that dirty.” Ha ha ha, right? Where did this “low-brow” humor go, and why did we once like it so much? I loved that joke. DeBrincat reminds me why.

Even though Superbaby of the short story “Superbaby Saves Slugville” was “historically, a fantastic crapper,” he held it all in to keep his aunt from visiting her boyfriend while washing the cloth diapers. The family notices Superbaby is backed up, so he’s sent to the doctor. His sister isn’t sure what this trip to the doctor’s means for Superbaby: “‘Does that mean he’ll poop now?’ Trina wonders about this every morning, making great snakes that don’t break, snakes of beautiful stink and rich color.” I’m thoroughly grossed out by the passage, but let’s be realistic: how many children (or, hell, even adults) haven’t been fascinated by the various characteristics that come out of their anuses. DeBrincat calls us out on thoughts we keep hidden to remain “normal,” and makes us acknowledge who we can be from time to time.troglodyte

The collection isn’t only made of “poo stories,” though. Her descriptions are quite lovely, even if the subject matter isn’t beautiful. This was a feature I loved of the collection. In “Gardenland,” Chichi returns home with her ex-husband Vince after she runs into him at a diner. She realizes she wasn’t “cured” of him when they divorced, that he’s still the same asshole she knew then: “Chichi pricked her ears to hear that piece-of-shit’s voice–the meaningless promises that flew like swallows from his red velvet tongue. She’d done time chasing after those birds, holding crumbs in her open hands while they hopped this way and that. When Chichi looked up he was there, all of him and so much of him was so much the same. The impudent slope of his shoulders, the Gothic lettering on his faded black T-shirt, the way he stood legs spread wide, like his nuts were too big to do else-wise.” Vince’s physical presence is animalistic, as if he weren’t meant to wear pants because his testicles are so….there (I’m personally picturing hairy coconuts). But he’s also capable of the sweet words of a man who leads a woman around. DeBrincat’s characters are often full of contradictions that make them pleasing to experience on the page.

Tracy DeBrincat’s collection stirs the pot of personalities and boils up the most unpredictable bunch ever. Whimsical, laugh-out-loud hysterical at times, Troglodyte is a must have for any larger-than-life woman who finds herself making decisions for happiness’ sake when sanity isn’t an option.

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

Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher #20BooksofSummer #LGBT @KensingtonBooks #ReadWomen

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Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher #20BooksofSummer #LGBT @KensingtonBooks #ReadWomen

Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher (Lesbian Career Girl Series #2) by Monica Nolan

published by Kensington Books, 2010

I eagerly jumped into my second Monica Nolan book! Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary was a delight to read, though sometimes it felt just a tad silly. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher felt more grown up, in a way, because she knows she’s a lesbian. Lois Lenz took 80% of the novel to figure it out (despite making out with women through the whole thing). Thus, I enjoyed Bobby Blanchard’s story a great deal more. Mind you, you don’t have to read Lois Lenz first. However, I would recommend that you read the books in order (there are 4 lesbian career girl novels) for maximum enjoyment.

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It’s 1964 and we learn that Bobby Blanchard is a field hockey player. She played in high school and college, but then a stupid accident causes her to break a bone, leaving her unable to go pro. Now what does she do? Going pro was her whole plan, despite majoring in teaching in college. Miss Watkins, a guidance counselor (who was the guidance counselor in Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary) visits Bobby in the hospital and reminds the sad athlete of her teaching credentials — and says there is an opening for a gym teacher at Metamora Academy for girls! (By the way: Bobby and Lois did not go to the same high school, so Miss Watkins is a bit like a guardian angel guidance counselor for lesbians, which I find funny).

Bobby has concerns about being a teacher, though:

“But my grades — my brains –” Bobby struggled to express herself. “A teacher has to be smart.” How she’d sweated over those lesson plan assignments in Pedagogy II, how lost she’d felt when the class discussed the pros and cons of module-based teaching!

But off to Metamora she goes. I’m not sure if all academies have the same labels, but instead of “gym teacher,” Bobby is the “Games Mistress.” Instead of grade levels, like 9th or freshman, the girls are “formers,” as in “4th formers.” I could never keep track of what each form meant, which made it hard to image the students’ ages. The alternative titles were something I did not enjoy.

Miss Watkins, the guidance counselor, almost never gets it wrong when she advises young lesbians! But not all the Metamora faculty are that excited by newbie Bobby, especially the new Math Mistress, Enid:

“And when you teach something as basic as gym, you can always tell them to do laps when you run out of material. . . .That’s what my high school gym teacher used to do.”

How insulting to Bobby! Author Monica Nolan seems to enjoy writing the prim, snippy, librarian-type. In Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary it was Netta Bean. In Bobby’s world, it’s Enid. When there is always a know-it-all with a secret and a grudge in Nolan’s novels, readers can predict that the librarian may let her hair down and whip off her glasses for some between-the-sheets fun. Sometimes, the stereotype helps with expectations, and Nolan uses the sexy librarian stereotype beautifully.

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Another distinct aspect of the world Nolan created is that everyone is lesbian, gay, or bisexual. You can guarantee that married or not, man or woman, teenager or adult, everyone is (note that very few men appear in Nolan’s novels). Nolan doesn’t make her character’s sexuality much of a secret, either, which is interesting. You just keep reading and become part of a world in which no one is straight, and it all is perfectly normal. You don’t have to wonder who’s point of view is the focus; it’s the titular character, and she’s a lesbian who doesn’t feel shame. I still remember Lois Lenz declaring, “I’m a lesbian career girl, too!” and feeling very excited about such a world.

Nolan does add a lot of subplots and points of contention to keep the story going like a mystery novel. When the mystery was solved at the end of Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary, I thought it was a bit silly. Some subplots circling Bobby’s life are:

  • How to integrate “Angle,” a frustrated teen with divorced parents who are of different faiths, with the other girls.
  • The Headmistress whose lover fell (or jumped!) from the tower last term and was killed.
  • The new field hockey team with most inexperienced players that Bobby put together at Metamora that keeps winning — because terrible “accidents” happen to the other teams’ players.
  • The ghost on the glowing bicycle.
  • Who stole one of the girl’s beloved locket.
  • A student who keeps buying Ouiji boards to summon the dead.

There’s a lot to take in! I’m not sure why Nolan heaps it on, but she did in both Lois Lenz and Bobby Blanchard. Piling on subplots was something I noticed in the mystery novel Terror in Taffeta. I want to call the Lesbian Career Girls series “cozy mysteries.” There is sex, but it’s mostly off page. There is almost zero violence. Things are wrapped up happily in the end. Perhaps plenty of subplots to misdirect readers is a key ingredient of a cozy mystery, one that other readers will appreciate more than I did. On a positive note, the books aren’t about the mystery, though; it’s about watching the main character develop into a stronger woman (YES!).

Most notably, Bobby Blanchard is just plain fun and funny. She’s always using sports metaphors to explain her feelings about other women. Early in the book Bobby meets up with her girlfriend, Elaine, a young woman who refuses to be seen in public with Bobby. Elaine wants to marry a boy so her father, who has lots of money, will stop threatening to send Elaine to college if she won’t get hitched (Elaine loves being lazy and having money). In reality, Elaine says, she will keep sneaking off to have sex with Bobby and marry some guy with even more money! The gym teacher let’s her have it:

“You may not be off the team, but your team loyalty is certainly in question!” Bobby responded hotly.

Elaine’s temper, never placid, began to fray. “Maybe I need a more competent coach,” she shot back. “One who understands the point of the game!”

“What are you saying?” demanded Bobby indignantly. “Are you implying my ball-handing skills are slipping? Why, I taught you everything you know! Your technique, your wide knowledge of plays…”

Keep in mind, they’re talking about whether or not Elaine is a traitor to lesbians, and if Bobby is sexually experienced enough. The metaphor goes on for just long enough to have any reader in stitches!

Furthermore, Nolan includes other bi-sexual women in the book who want Bobby in bed but not public, giving the reader serious food for thought. There is no shame in the characters regarding their sexuality, but the 1964 setting means society may have something to say about two women (and at one point there is a raid on a lesbian bar). Society is never one character; it’s a presence, though, allowing Nolan to overlap her imagined world and reality. In a way, Nolan asks the reader to consider her attitude toward LGBT couples — and not just feeling liberal, but actually seeing LGBT couples in public and not making untoward comments.

Monica Nolan does some fun world building when Miss Watkins, the guidance counselor from the beginning of the book, runs into Bobby while she is with Netta Bean, one of the main characters of Lois Lenz! Netta is a teacher, too, so she tries to help Bobby feel better about yelling unreasonably at her students by sharing some mistakes she’s made, including when she “failed to take a student’s threat to the assassinate the principal seriously.” The author keeps the characters just over-the-top to move you to gently snort with laughter. And the cross-over of the author’s novels is such a delight to read! I feel like I’ve run into an old friend, since I learned so much about Netta before.

Bobby Blanchard is an enjoyable read, one that I was happier to pick up and read to my husband each night than Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary. Beware: Bobby’s story is definitely more risque: she knows she’s a lesbian, she is promiscuous, and at one point has a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old student (legal, but questionable ethically). Overall, though, a great, fun book!

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#20BooksofSummer

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

Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore Review on Goodreads, as Grab the Lapels is a ladies only site! 🙂 I had to read Fluke earlier than I originally planned because book club was 8/28. *Rilla of Ingleside is still coming!*

Rainbow Valley #20BooksofSummer #YAlit #AnneofGreenGables

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Rainbow Valley #20BooksofSummer #YAlit #AnneofGreenGables

Rainbow Valley by L.M. Montgomery

(Book #7) of the Anne of Green Gables Series

Be sure to read my reviews for the previous six books. Links to reviews are all at the bottom of this page in my #20BooksofSummer challenge list!


It’s gotta be a conspiracy, ya’ll! The odd number Anne books are delightful, plot-driven, and full of memorable characters. All the even numbers (ew) are a let down and read more like short stories set in the same place with the same people that…well, don’t really go together. Hooray for Rainbow Valley being on an odd number!

Rainbow Valley isn’t about Anne at all. In fact, it’s barely about her family. While that may sound disappointing to Real Anne Fans, I was happy to get a bit of space from the Judgey McJudger that has become Anne (she rates her children on beauty).

There is a place in the woods near Ingleside (the Blythe family home) that has a little brook and is covered is moss. Two trees’ branches intertwine, like lovers. The children hang bells in those trees and play all sorts of games. Though it was once called the Hollow, little Rilla saw a rainbow shoot across the sky that landed in the Hollow and exclaimed it beautiful. Thus, the Hollow is re-dubbed Rainbow Valley.

Rainbow Valley

That’s our setting; who are the characters? Mainly, they are the Meredith children. Mr. Meredith is the new preacher for the Presbyterian church in Glen St. Mary. He’s a widower with four children. Being a bigger space-head dreamer than any character before, Mr. Meredith unintentionally neglects his children. The only one who “cares” for them is Aunt Martha, who is old, deaf, a terrible cook, and sickly. Mr. Meredith saved her from the poor house, so he fears that getting an actual live-in maid would hurt his old aunt’s feelings. Who cares if the kids starve and look ragged, right?

Everyone cares. Not only do the church members think the children are hooligans, they judge the cat:

“A manse cat should at least look respectable, in my opinion, whatever he really is. But I never saw such a rakish-looking beast. And he walks along the ridgepole of the manse almost every evening at sunset, Mrs. Dr. dear, and waves his tail, and that is not becoming.”

If a cat swishing its tail is going to lead to criticism, the minister’s children have no hope. They have few clothes, sometimes no shoes, are apt to laugh when they shouldn’t, and really have no one raising them.

There are two things that really make this book a pleasure to read: the characters and the sustained plot. The main characters are the Meredith children. Jerry, 12, is the oldest. He’s not so much a guide to his younger siblings as we typically see. They simply like having him around. Faith is 11. She takes up the spotlight because she is so unlike any other LMM character in the Green Gables series. Faith is a tomboy, has a pet rooster, and comes up with plans to fix things and take responsibility for her actions. Some might say Faith has balls. Una is 10 and she’s “not pretty, but sweet.” Yes, there is a lot of that in Rainbow Valley, though not as much as Book #6. Una is a thinker, and she constantly considers the feelings of others. Carl is 9, and he’s also unlike any other. He loves bugs and creatures, so he always has something crawling on him or digging around in his pocket, even in church, which is a hoot. He doesn’t say much, but he adds to each scene with his presence.

While these are good Christian children, they are scrutinized fiercely. The manse is attached to a Methodist graveyard, so the children play there frequently, which the Presbyterians feel makes them look sinful to the Methodists. While gossip drives me nuts, the things people catch the Meredith children doing is often funny or sad, so either way I felt for them and wanted to help them.

The story then introduces Mary Vance. She was taken in by a woman who nearly worked her to death and beat her constantly. The Meredith children find Mary sleeping in a barn and take her in. Their father is so oblivious that Mary Vance lives with the Merediths for two weeks, but he doesn’t notice. Mary’s both annoying and wonderful. She’s such a heathen that she sticks out as a blemish in LMM’s perfect world. The Meredith children try to school Mary on hell, but she doesn’t know what it is. She explains:

“Mr. Wiley used to mention hell when he was alive. He was always telling folks to go there. I thought it was some place over in New Brunswick where he come from.”

I hate to laugh because Mary knows almost nothing, but she does insert humor into the story. She almost died of “pewmonia,” for instance. After she’s permanently homed and dolled up with nice things, she has access to gossip from grown women. Mary runs to tell the Meredith children what she’s heard. While eyeing Mary’s nice new clothes, the Merediths eye their holey socks and old, thin outfits and feel regret for helping her. And Mary’s news always upsets their world; she may tell her friends that their father is going to be let go because they’ve behaved badly and caused a member of the church who donates a hefty sum to his salary to quit attending.

Mary certainly helps the plot move along. The children respond to her news by taking action. Notably, Faith speaks to members of the church whom the Meredith children have rubbed the wrong way. Hilarity ensues, but you also admire her bravery when handling grown-up situations. There’s also a sense of sadness; it’s heartbreaking to watch her take responsibility for the children to make sure everyone knows their father had nothing to do with their behavior. She’s a tween and has no rightful business fixing adult lives, but she has to.

The plot of Rainbow Valley moves forward (THANK YOU, LMM) instead of skipping from one unrelated scene to the next. It starts with meeting the Merediths and Mary Vance. The Meredith children play with the Blythe children in Rainbow Valley. We don’t learn much about the Blythes. (Where is Shirley??? Did he die? Did Anne hallucinate him? He is in zero scenes in Books #6 and #7!). Let’s face it: the Meredith children are 100% more interesting that the Blythe youth. Then, the plot moves to the Presbyterian women of Glen St. Mary trying to hook Mr. Meredith up with someone to take care of his kids and stop embarrassing the Presbyterians, who fear the Methodists are laughing at them. A romance ensues, and there is a sort of Taming of the Shrew plot that added pathos to a few story threads. Though the romance is predictable, it’s nice to have a story work out the way you want it to.


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#20BooksofSummer

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

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore

#AnneofGreenGables #20BooksofSummer #readwomen

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#AnneofGreenGables #20BooksofSummer #readwomen

When I reviewed Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, I was under the assumption that most of my readers had read it and thus included spoilers. Turns out, I was wrong! Anne of Green Gables (1908) by L.M. Montgomery is the beloved classic that has sold over 50 million copies world wide. Despite it’s success, I’ve decided to not include any spoilers — I’ve learned from my mistake! I want to add that I’ve seen the made-for-TV miniseries of this book many times; therefore, I knew the plot.

Green Gables is a farmstead located in Avonlea on Prince Edward Island in Canada. Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert are a brother and sister (a fact not blatantly stated until the very end) who never married or had children of their own, and thus they live together. They’re getting old, though — Matthew is 60 and has a bad heart — so they tell a friend who tells a relative who is going to an orphanage to pass along the message that the Cuthbert’s want to adopt a boy of about 11 to help on their farm. Not exactly a realistic way to initiate an adoption!

Terribly shy Matthew sets off in his buggy to pick up the orphan boy at the train station only to find a girl — a redheaded, skinny, freckled, highly-talkative girl! Will Marilla consent to keep her, when they don’t have any use for some girl? Based on the title of the book, you can assume yes, they do, but the delight of the novel is getting to know Anne and her strong personality, and seeing how people react to her.

Much like in the first chapter of Rebecca, there are numerous descriptions of foliage. Should a person not like Rebecca, it’s thanks to all those plants! The novel smooths out, though, and focuses mostly on rhododendrons and azaleas, which were easy enough to Google. But Anne of Green Gables has all the plant life — flowers, trees, and ferns alike — and it gets overwhelming if you’re like me and can name/recognize almost no plants. Thanks to the TV miniseries, I could picture Avonlea, though plant-lovers would rejoice in the words alone.

Many reviewers talk about Anne’s imagination (it’s huge) and her temper (it’s bad). I want to look a bit deeper at this book to give you food for thought. For instance, how we render children culpable unfairly. Notice that when Anne does something foolish, she is humiliated and must repent. Yet, many of the foolish things she does are the result of an adult’s misdoing. Example: Anne bakes a cake for the new minister and his wife, and she wants to do her very best! Despite a little cold, she bakes the cake with all the love she can muster. But it’s a disaster, and the cake tastes awful. Marilla scolds Anne to pieces, but it’s Marilla who filled an old vanilla jar with anodyne liniment (which, according to the National Museum of American History is not used for cake baking). Anne couldn’t smell the difference due to her cold, and label said vanilla! Other such blunders are Marilla’s fault, but Anne is repeatedly described as impractical, flighty, and sometimes bad. In the end, readers laugh at Anne’s mistakes, but the book also got me thinking about the way we treat children.

bad cake

Most everyone befriends Anne and finds her unique and delightful. While we’re told that she has very little formal schooling due to her orphan days, she’s very smart, creative, and uses a large vocabulary. Although I was totally enjoying Anne, I was also wondering if this book hurts the reality of orphans. Is everyone expecting the children they adopt to be the next Anne? I’m sure many children moved from home to home have deep emotional issues, mainly lack of trust and education (moving from home to home prevents regular schooling). It’s a romanticized novel for sure — why is Anne so smart without school or a stable home? — though when you are in the throes of Green Gables, it’s hard to care about reality.

In fact, you really need to let go of reality. Anne is friends with adults and children alike, and she has a “bosom friend,” the best friend ever, with whom she never ever fights or becomes jealous of.

bosom friends.gif

This disastrous 2016 combined with Anne of Green Gables made me on-again/off-again bitter. If only I moved to Canada, I thought, I could be happy and live a simple life. But that’s just silliness on my part. Avonlea (and Prince Edward Island) is so tiny that there is no diversity in Anne’s world. There are no people of color, LGBT characters, or families from anywhere beyond Avonlea (there are disparaging remarks about Arabs, French, people from U.S., Italians, even those from Nova Scotia). If people in Avonlea are fighting, it’s over small things, like whether or not they should say whatever comes to their minds, or be more tactful.

It doesn’t seem like I’ve said much nice about Anne of Green Gables. I think the magic of this book is that it’s escapism at its best, and it’s funny and endearing. I raced through the pages, sometimes letting my eyes go faster than my brain, requiring me to go back and re-read sentences. I was hungry to go faster because the book is so good.

Take for instance the characters. Two main characters are so stern that Anne’s creativity is sure to rile them up. There’s Mrs. Rachel Lynde:

“…for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed….”

rachel.gif

And then there’s Marilla:

“Here sat Marilla Cuthbert, when she sat at all, always slightly distrustful of sunshine, which seemed to her too dancing and irresponsible a thing for a world which was meant to be taken seriously.”

marilla

Compare these two stiff women to Anne:

“You’re not eating anything,” said Marilla sharply, eying her as if it were a serious shortcoming.

Anne sighed.

“I can’t. I’m in the depths of despair. Can you eat when you are in the depths of despair?”

“I’ve never been in the depths of despair, so I can’t say,” responded Marilla.

“Weren’t you? Well, did you ever try to imagine you were in the depths of despair?”

“No, I didn’t.”

depths of despair.gif

The shenanigans that ensue from the intermingling of these three personalities is worth the read alone! Anne of Green Gables is also very funny. When Anne falls off of a roof after being dared to walk it’s peak, bosom buddy Diana runs up:

“Anne, are you killed?” shrieked Diana, throwing herself on her knees beside her friend. “Oh, Anne, dear Anne, speak just one word to me and tell me if you’re killed.”

As if the dead can tell you they’re dead! Ha!

As Anne grows and matures and does her best in school and at home, she is recognized for her efforts. Mrs. Rachel Lynde says, “You’re a credit to your friends, Anne, that’s what, and we’re all proud of you.” And isn’t that a great feeling? I can’t remember a time in my life when doing good meant I reflected well on my friends. Competition to be the best is a selfish, angry beast, one we’ve cultivated to the extreme. For me, in high school, it was getting 1st chair violin, regardless of how well the orchestra did. In grad school, it was who wrote the best stories and published the most, despite writing not being a competitive activity. Even while blogging, I’m aware that we’re all working to have the most likes and comments and shares. I want to be a credit to my friends and community. And that’s the beauty of Anne of Green Gables. It’s an unrealistic world, but you want to emulate it to be a better person.

My copy is part of an eight-book box set released from Bantam Books in 1998. There is a map of Prince Edward Island and a brief biography of L.M. Montgomery in the back.

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#20BooksofSummer

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

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore

Terror in Taffeta #bookreview #mystery #wedding #20BooksofSummer #ReadWomen @kindacozy

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Terror in Taffeta #bookreview #mystery #wedding #20BooksofSummer #ReadWomen @kindacozy

This is book #10 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge. Please note that I read Fire in The Ashes by Jonathan Kozol immediately after I read Nickel and Dimed. The books pair well together, but since Grab the Lapels is #NoBoysAllowed, you can find my review on Goodreads.

Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper

published by Minotaur Books, March 2016

The premise: at a destination wedding in Mexico, unlikable bridesmaid Dana falls over dead in the middle of the ceremony. The bride’s demanding mother insists that wedding planner Kelsey figure out whodunit — especially since the police have said no one can leave the city. There are many suspects Kelsey uncovers and interrogates, giving the book several twists as she works toward finding the murderer.

Terror in Taffeta is the first book of its kind that I can remember reading. I think this is what readers call a “cozy mystery,” but I’m not sure. There is no violence or sex, and Cooper gives the story over to first-person narrator Kelsey, who navigates police, the bride and groom, the rude mother, an ex-boyfriend, and a best buddy who just can’t quit her. Quickly, the police take the bride’s sister into custody, claiming they have undeniable proof that she’s the murderer.

terror in taffeta

The book does have some seriously funny moments. When Dana collapses in the first few pages, Kelsey knows she needs to tell the bride, but she runs into the bride’s mother, first. Mrs. Abernathy, a wealthy white woman, insists Kelsey not ruin her daughter’s special day with bad news. Kelsey asks her friend Brody (whom she hired as the wedding photographer) what she should do. Brody asks, “What would Emily Post do?” Emily Post, of course, is the mother of the etiquette book — if you’re ever unsure what to do in a given situation, turn to Ms. Post.

Another great scene that had me in stitches was when Kelsey was trapped at the funeral of a man she didn’t know. She thinks, “I did the only appropriate thing there was to do: I pretended to pray.” In another example, the bridal party must move from their current luxury hotel. They’d planned a week-long visit, but the death of Dana expanded it to two weeks, and people with hotel reservations were about to show up. Kelsey worries about sticking Mrs. Abernathy in a shoddy hotel with “a room with a bed that vibrated if you inserted a couple of pesos.”

Kelsey isn’t just funny; she avoids the stereotype of the wedding planner who spends so much time planning weddings that she’s single and lonely. Instead, Kelsey uses an analogy:

People always assume that when you’re a wedding planner you want to get married really badly, when actually, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s like if you worked at an ice cream shop. For the first month, you’d eat ice cream every day and think, Wow, I’m super lucky; I can have ice cream whenever I want. Then you’d start gaining weight and getting bored with the ice cream. You’d eat it less often, and after a few months, you’d find that you preferred salty snacks.

Kelsey’s ex-boyfriend does play a role in the book, but he’s not what you’d think, and Cooper avoids the sticky-sweet love stuff.

Yet, there were a two big things that drove me insane in Terror in Taffeta, things I couldn’t get over that really spoiled the story for me. First, Mrs. Abernathy: she’s so contrary in every single situation that she felt unrealistic and under-developed. She’s classic racist white lady: “No live-o here-o” she tells Mexican police. And she’s obviously one of those moms who think only her birth children are “real” family.

“You think I’d let a murderer on the guest list? I approved every last person myself….But if it was one of the guests, it’d have to be one of his,” she said, jerking her thumb toward the groom.

What does Mrs. Abernathy have against her new son-in-law? Nothing readers have been told. However, I’ve met parents who don’t consider spouses “real” family. They indoctrinate their children with the notion that spouses come and go, but blood is forever. Ew, creepy, cultish.

abernathy

How I picture Mrs. Abernathy — photo from AVclub.com

Mrs. Abernathy isn’t above a bit of aggression, either. She’ll jab Kelsey in the ribs to get her attention. Rib jabbing is common in books, but have you ever allowed someone to assault you in real life? I hated the way Mrs. Abernathy was a cliche.

Much worse than a cliched character was the premise stretched to nearly breaking: why is a wedding planner playing detective? Well, she doesn’t want Mrs. Abernathy to cancel her final payment. I kept mulling over the logistics: if you hire someone to do a job, you can’t cancel payment because they refuse to meddle in police affairs.

Kelsey does have the good (realistic) sense to call the police when a room has been ransacked and to turn over physical evidence. But then she demands the police do something with the evidence to release the bride’s sister.

“I don’t know why you have this vendetta against [the bride’s sister], but you can’t prove she did this. You know why? Because she didn’t. So why don’t you stop acting like Barney Fife and start doing your job — pronto!”

barney fife

photo from tumblr

Who demands the police do things — and for a person she doesn’t really know? Well, in books people do, which makes the police look like they don’t care. I was so frustrated that Kelsey was playing detective in Mexico when the police have told her she’s in the way, but I was also frustrated that they weren’t doing things with the evidence she gave them.

So, I talked to an actual police officer (thanks, Brad!). He said that the police don’t determine someone’s guilt or innocence, which is what Kelsey is demanding, but rely on the court system to present the evidence and come to a verdict. I see readers ask why police always seem so stupid in books; I’m pretty sure it’s because writers give “the mic” to characters running around trying to save the day for no good reason.

In the end, the nagging question — Why the hell is a wedding planner risking her life and career in a foreign country on solving a mystery without giving readers any real reason for doing so? — wouldn’t go away, and I was happy to be done with the book. That’s not to say plenty of readers didn’t love Terror in Taffeta. I read this book on recommendation from crime/mystery writer Margot Kinberg, the book has blurbs from excellent sources, and most ratings on Goodreads are five stars. Perhaps the genre wasn’t for me, so you’ll have to decide! Are you able to suspend disbelief when a realistic character makes unrealistic choices repeatedly?

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#20BooksofSummer

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

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore

On Air #readwomen #bookreview #discjockey #20BooksofSummer

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On Air #readwomen #bookreview #discjockey #20BooksofSummer

On Air by Robin Stratton

published by Blue Mustang Press, 2011

On Air is narrated by Eric Storm, an aging DJ who is angry that he’s micromanaged at his classic rock radio station. He’s now being told exactly what to say and what music to play. He remembers back in the day when DJs were trusted and mattered, an attitude that gets him fired after 25 years on air in Boston. Eric has been divorced for three years, so he spends a lot of time with his Ma, a woman who maybe talks too much, but who raised Eric alone. Things start to change when Ma begins getting dizzy and falling down. Around the same time, Eric sees a young musician more than half his age, playing for donations on the street. She’s mesmerizing, so he lies to say he can help her get discovered, hoping life will change in his favor. But things take a more dramatic turn when he reads his mother’s private diary, as he braces for Ma’s imminent death.

Eric can be selfish at times, and he knows it. I enjoyed the genuine emotion in the book, even if it is the kind of emotion we might scoff at. For instance, when Eric is in the hospital with Ma, he wants a Diet Coke: “The machine doesn’t have Coke, it has Pepsi. A feeling of defeat chokes me. Will nothing ever go right for me again?” Out of context, this line seems so…whiny. But in the story, it makes sense. And don’t we all just want one thing — one thing! — to go right every so often?

on air

Is he falling into the sky? Is he doing a handstand? I don’t fully “get” the cover image.

By the time I read the line about the Pepsi machine, I had laughed many times. Ma is a Jewish woman, so she has some traditional behaviors, such as feeding her son to show love. She’s also terribly thrifty, a result of living through the Depression. Both aspects of her personality make her do wacky things sometimes. Eric arrives to take his mother out to dinner, an event they had planned, only to discover she’s made soup:

“Or we can take some soup with us. You’ll have a little nosh on the way.”

“Ma, how can I eat soup and drive?”

“What about the time you ate a salad, with me in the car? You steered with your knees. I was sure I was going to be killed. I saw my life flash before my eyes.”

“Ma.”

“Which is why I’m saying you’ll have some now, before we go.”

I sigh. Happily, she serves the soup and sits down to watch me eat. “How come you’re not having any?” I ask.

“I had a big bowl before you got here.”

“But I told you I was taking you out to dinner!”

“I knew you would suggest pizza or Chinese food, and I didn’t want any, but I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

And on and on it goes. I love interactions between Eric and Ma. When Ma has to be taken to the hospital by ambulance, she immediately befriends the paramedics. She asks the paramedic’s name (it’s Dave) and if he can’t just give her a shot instead of taking her to the hospital. The scene continues:

Dave tells the other paramedic to prop open the door and get the gurney, then asks Ma, “Kinda shot?”

“Vitamins or something.”

“You belong in the hospital, ma’am….”

“Get my robe,” Ma says to me, “and my purse. And my slippers — the new ones I just bought on QVC.” To Dave she says, “The old ones are so ratty looking.”

“We can’t have that,” says Dave.

Not only did I find this scene terribly funny, but it also endears Ma to the reader. She’s a self-conscious person, but she also is quick to meet people and find out what they’re all about. You can tell she’s the kind of lady who would help anyone. And she really, truly loves her son. Every one of their interactions end with “Okay, I love you” and “I love you, too.” Since Eric calls Ma a lot, we read this exchange 10 times (yes, I counted). Not only does it give a sense of familiarity (don’t we all say the same goodbye every time we speak with a parent?), but it also gives the story rhythm, like a giant poem broken into stanzas by the ends of conversations. I came to expect the exchange and felt comforted by it. I felt the same way about knowing Eric would always drink Diet Coke.

I thought it was interesting that On Air and Eric Storm engage in mild metafiction. If you don’t know, metafiction is when a book “knows” it’s a book. You know how Ferris Bueller talks to the camera? That’s metafilm. Eric visits his best friend’s mother, who is on her deathbed at home. She tells him:

“Glamour isn’t worth much at the end of the day…” and it feels like a piece of wisdom [he] should cling to and accommodate the rest of [his] life to, but at the moment [he has] trouble applying it, and [he knows] it will wind up in the slush pile in [his] brain along with all the other stuff that [he] should think about at some point but probably won’t.

Okay, maybe this isn’t quite metafiction, but where do we hear people openly using and believing truisms? It’s movies and books. Eric knows that such truisms don’t apply to real life, no matter how badly we want them to.

Near the end of the book is a better example of metafiction. Eric has met up with his ex-wife, Kelly, to talk, but he’s got that gorgeous young singer staying at his house because her boyfriend is abusing her. The singer makes it clear she’s going to sleep without panties, and to the reader she obviously wants to exploit Eric’s connections in radio. Will Kelly and the hot singer accidentally run into each other, one of them sans panties? Eric imagines the scenario, how both women would storm out angrily, and thinks, “the audience will laugh and say, Oh, he was so close to being happy!” Here, Eric knows the tropes of love triangles and how easy it is to fall into one and look incredibly guilty.

I had a lot of fun reading On Air. I didn’t quite understand why the DJs already had DJ-type names. From my husband’s time as a DJ, I learned almost everyone changes their name, either to something “cooler” or to something easier to pronounce. Eric Storm and Steven Even, for example, sound terribly made up. Finally, the ending left me hanging a bit. When things finally smoothed out and had a chance to shoot forward into new territory, the book ended. Perhaps some of you will think differently!

I’d like to thank Robin Stratton for sending me a copy of On Air in exchange for an honest review. You can learn more about Robin in her Meet the Writer feature.

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#20BooksofSummer

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

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

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman #readwomen #bookreview @thelindywest

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Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman #readwomen #bookreview @thelindywest

*Author photo from The Guardian.

Shrill (May 2016, Hachette Books) is a collection of 19 essays from comedian/journalist Lindy West, who writes for The Guardian and has pieces at many websites, such as JezebelNew York TimesGQ, and The Stranger. I heard through a Tweet that her collection was being published, and I was instantly drawn to what I learned: West is smart, precise, funny — and fat. As a fat lady myself, I wanted to know more. Rarely do fat female role models appear in the United States (um, or elsewhere), so I put a hold on a copy at the library.

After I got into the book, I realized that I’ve read some of West’s articles in the above mentioned publications. I don’t often remember a writer’s name when I read an online article, but the piece she wrote that I remembered clearly describes the time a troll created an e-mail address and Twitter account using West’s recently deceased father’s name to humiliate and torment her. And then he later came out and apologized to her, which never, ever happens. The main themes of Shrill are fat shaming, rape culture, comedy, abortion, and trolls, and they’re all examined through a feminist lens.

Anytime I read about feminism, I instantly compare the work to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. Gay is probably the most notable feminist of our generation. After reading Bad Feminist, I didn’t feel great. I was mostly confused and disappointed. It seemed like she was either telling personal stories, talking about how she likes things that most feminists feel oppress women (like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”), and listing what she likes and hates (movies, books, etc.). I felt like Bad Feminist started as a listicle and ended up a book. Thesis statements? Not really. Organization? More like meandering. A call to action? I have no idea what Gay thinks feminists can do to move forward. I do not write to demean Gay’s book. But I do know that many other readers, according to Goodreads, found the same issues and are perhaps seeking a different contemporary feminist voice.

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Yes, West is a white woman and Roxane Gay is Haitian-American, but both women talk about intersectional feminism, so West is a good alternative if you are also an intersectional feminist. Both women included personal essays that appeared to have little to do with feminism. Both are hugely into pop culture (especially Twitter). But I felt West’s writing was clearer, more rhetorically sound, and presented solutions to problems feminists encounter.

Some examples of West’s intersection feminism include the socioeconomic. She talks openly about her abortion (and created #shoutyourabortion to de-stigmatize abortion rights) and how she discovered, “It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that there was anything complicated about obtaining an abortion. This is a trapping of privilege: I grew up middle-class and white in Seattle, I had always had insurance, and, besides, abortion was legal.” Later in the essay, West states what privilege is, referring to the abortion clinic making her promise to pay her bill instead of charging her up front like they’re supposed to: “Privilege means that it’s easy for white women to do each other favors. Privilege means that those of us who need it the least often get the most help.”

West again touches on intersectional feminism when she discusses fat-shaming, which makes fat women feel like they don’t deserve anything. She argues, “Denying people access to value is an incredibly insidious form of emotional violence, one that our culture wields aggressively and liberally to keep marginalized groups small and quiet.” Throughout Shrill, West considers feminism that benefit her more than women of color, with disabilities, etc.

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The best part of Shirll is that West helped me “figure out” my own feminism. While I feel that rape jokes are never, ever funny, I would not have an answer that appeased the folks who shout about freedom of speech, say “you’re just not funny,” or call you “too sensitive” for your claims. But West breaks it down. When she was younger, West constantly went to comedy clubs and saw rising stars (who are now super famous), like Patton Oswalt, Mitch Hedberg, Marc Maron, and Maria Bamford.

One night, a comedian was telling a joke about herpes, and everyone was laughing. Except West. She analyzes why she didn’t laugh. Because the comic wasn’t making fun of his herpes, the joke was designed to shame people who have herpes. Statistically, West points out, many people in the room have herpes. So why are they laughing? They laugh, she argues, because if they don’t, they will be outed for having herpes. The joke works “brilliantly”because there is no chance that people won’t laugh, essentially, because the comic was lazy enough to embarrass everyone into laughing. Those who don’t have herpes are now vindicated in their feelings that people with herpes are gross. This moment changed the way West felt about comedy, which led her into arguing publicly that rape jokes are not funny.

Rape jokes are not funny, West points out, because they come from a person of power profiting on the traumas of people with no power. She compares it to the CEO of a company getting up at the Christmas party and roasting the janitor for barely making enough money to feed his family. Similarly, a white man will most likely never be raped, nor will he fear being raped, nor does he have a game plan for how to avoid being raped and what to do if raped (women like me know these plans in detail). Therefore, the joke is funny to men. West was invited to debate Jim Norton on a TV show over the issue. If you know Norton, you know he’s a bit if a dark comic, and I’m not surprised he’s pro-rape jokes.

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What’s interesting is that West’s rhetoric was sound, but she didn’t change Norton’s mind. Off camera, he said he agreed that it’s wrong to take advantage of victims, but he was more concerned about free speech for comics. Norton felt that comedy didn’t translate into real life — that people who believe rape jokes are funny won’t go rape people. West disagreed, and then something happened…

Jim Norton fans bombarded West’s Twitter feed, e-mail, the comment section sof her articles — all over the internet. They wrote things about raping her, thinking she’s too fat to rape, cutting her up with an electric saw, etc. Norton had to admit that his fans were being aggressive and translating the “right” to tell rape jokes into real-life rape threats. He even wrote an article asking his fans to cool it. This was in 2010. West notes that since then, the comedy scene has changed; comedians are changing their tune. Thinking about how speaking up helped, and how using the rape threats to make a point helped, changed the way I thought about treading the internet, and about the maxim “Don’t Feed the Trolls,” with which West disagrees. Why should women be silent?

West also argues that fat is a feminist issue. She notes, “You have to swallow, every day, that you are a secondary being whose worth is measured by an arbitrary, impossible standard, administered by men.” West also describes how as a fat child, she was so ashamed of her body that it kept her silent. Women, both online and in life, are silenced constantly. Heartbreakingly, West explains that as a child, “[she] got good at being early on — socially, if not physically. In public, until [she] was eight, [she] would speak only to [her] mother, and even then, only in whispers, pressing [her] face into her [mother’s] leg.” West doesn’t have these earth-shattering traumas to report (if I compare her to Jessica Valenti, for example, whose new memoir catalogs all the sexual trauma she’s experienced). Yet, she is affected for most of her life by fat-shaming and the way it shuts her down as a woman, helping me to think more about my own silences — and the voices we’re missing from other fat people. There’s no need to compare traumas (sexual, emotional, physical) and decide whose is worse by some made-up standard. Traumas that shut women down are all appalling.

No matter what she’s writing about, West is ridiculously funny. She starts Shrill by describing all the fat female role models from her childhood, a list that included Auntie Shrew, Lady Cluck, The Trunchbull, and Ursula the Sea Witch. There are almost none, is the point. But did you ever wonder why King Triton is so ripped? West writes, “History is written by the victors, so forgive me if I don’t trust some P90X sea king’s smear campaign against the radical fatty in the next grotto.” Oh, man! I almost died!


auntie shrew      lady kluck3      the trunchbull      ursula2


In a nutrition class West signs up for, back when she felt like she needed to lose weight to be somebody, the teacher tells the students that if they get hungry after breakfast at 7Am and before lunch at 1PM, they should have 6 almonds. If they’ve gone over their “almond allotment, try an apple. So crisp. So filling.” West remembers, “Then everyone in nutrition class would nod about how fresh and satisfying it is to just eat an apple.” Lindy West labels this scene…wait for it… “the Apple Appreciation Circle-Jerk Jamboree.” I laughed so hard about this I called my mom and read her the scene! My mom, too had experienced such a class years ago.

Here’s one more great line: West compares her first experience in first-class flying and compares her seat to the ones in coach: “It has succeeded at being a chair instead of a flying social experiment about the limits of human endurance.” I read this passage at work and started cackling, despite the dead silence of the building.

Sometimes I wondered if I found Shrill so terribly funny and relevant because I am a fat woman. I tried reading passages to my husband, who didn’t laugh as much as I did, but he’s also a thoughtful person who may dismiss the humor and feel bad, wondering instead if I’m feeling bad for having read about fat-shaming and rape. My verdict is you must read this book. Lindy West is a feminist who’s doing something; she fought –with results — the fat-shaming that became acceptable around 2005, rape jokes in 2010, and internet trolls who make the internet unsafe for women.

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary

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Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary by Monica Nolan

published by Kensington Books, 2007

I picked up this book on a recommendation from Chance Lee, one of my Goodreads buddies whose reviews are funny and insightful. I couldn’t get over the title and so further looked into Monica Nolan’s work. After Lois Lenz comes Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym TeacherMaxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante; and Dolly Dingle, Lesbian Landlandy. There’s also the superbly titled The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories. According to her Goodreads profile, she “has experience in three out of the four careers she’s written about.” Please, please, let Monica Nolan be an ex-gym teacher! I bought all four of the lesbian lady novels.

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Monica Nolan

Monica Nolan’s whole “Lesbian Career Girl” series borrows from the old pulp novels, from the writing style (lots of shocked characters yelling with exclamation points) to the cover. According to the NewYorker, Robert de Graff started Pocket Books in 1939 and switched to cheap paper — pulp — to make them affordable and mass-marketable (the first press to do so in America). Finally, feeling that it wasn’t enough to have Americans ordering their books from catalogs because there were so few bookstores (only about 2,800), he decided to cash in on the “more than seven thousand newsstands, eighteen thousand cigar stores, fifty-eight thousand drugstores, and sixty-two thousand lunch counters — not to mention train and bus stations.” According to the author of the article, “People who didn’t have a local bookstore, and even people who would never have ventured into a bookstore, could now browse the racks while filling a prescription or waiting for a train and buy a book on impulse.” (Fun Fact: de Graff felt books should never cost more than a pack of cigarettes).

Suddenly, books with titles like Hitch-Hike Hussy and The Daughter of Fu Manchu were available, along with “whodunit?” novels, hard-boiled detective fiction, and romances. Pulp novels are especially famous for their covers:

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Image from pulpcovers.com

 

 

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Image from pulpcovers.com. Can you image reading this on your commute to work??

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary follows in the tradition of having an eye-catch pulp cover (though I must add the quality of paper is very good):

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The novel, I’m pretty sure, is set in the 1950s, when women are starting to do things out of the house, but it’s looked down on as selfish. Lois and her best friend, Faye, are about to graduate high school in Walnut Grove, home of the Nutshells. The plan is for them to go to a junior college together, marry their high school sweethearts, live next door to each other, and have babies!

But something happens when the guidance counselor, a strong women (possibly a lesbian), tells Lois her grades in filing and typing are fantastic and that she should consider going to live in the “big city” to get a job as a secretary. It’s interesting to watch an 18-year-old girl get so excited about being a secretary. Faye is mad and Lois’s mom scoffs, but the guidance counselor says she has a job and a supervised boarding house — the Magdalena Arms — lined up for Lois. Lois is going to miss all the practice kissing she does with Faye, but her boyfriend is no big deal (it turns out he’s using Lois as a cover to date an African American girl…I mean, it’s like having a “beard,” but for race). Lois bucks tradition and goes…to the hot, stinky city to find the Magdalena Arms is pretty dumpy. Her room on the 5th floor is shabby, too.

At lot happens the first night in the Magdalena Arms when the friendly girls of the 5th floor have some drinks in one of the rooms. This book is full of puns. When Lois is asked if she likes girls, the author uses the verb “queried” Get it? Queer-ied? The Magdalena Arms is described as “quite a special atmosphere — so gay, so liberal, yet closely supervised and cared for all the same.” After Lois discovers an older girl, Pamela, who was on her cheerleading squad in Walnut Grove, visiting the Magdalena Arms, the whole 5th floor does a toast to old friends:

“To the Nutshells,” everyone echoed, and drank.

“Pamela had the highest kick in the state!” Lois told them proudly.

“I’m not surprised,” drawled Maxie. “Pamela’s always been very limber.”

Predictably, Lois very quickly gets drunk, for she is not used to alcohol, and Netta puts her to bed. Lois slurs, “You’re not a white slaver, are you?” and Netta — sweet Netta with her hair in a bun and glasses — replies, “No, I’m a school teacher.”

The next morning, Lois goes to her first day on the job. It turns out she will not be working in the typing pool as she thought she would; she’s going to be the personal secretary to the boss, Mrs. Pierson — whose nicknamed the hyena. When she gets home, Lois tells a 5th floor girl, Dolly, about it: “A promotion practically before you started…You’re going straight to the top, kid, straight to the top — even if you have to ride the hyena to get there!” These kinds of sexual puns are everywhere, and they make the story that saucy kind of light-hearted fun you want every so often.

Most of Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary is clear to the reader — namely that Lois is a lesbian, and so is almost every other female in the book. Lois doesn’t recognize what’s going on, so she’s often confused. There are also twists and misleading clues, such as why no one can go in the filing room at work, what happened to a girl who used to live on the 5th floor, where a sexy photo came from, why there was a break in at the Magdalena Arms, and who is a communist.

Yes, Lois is paranoid about communists. Her mother read in the newspaper about communists and “white slavers” in the big city and warned Lois not to take the secretary job. But when the girls of the 5th floor all go out to dinner, they make fun of Lois’s mother for her paranoia. But then things get more serious:

“But honestly, that attitude has ruined thousands of innocent lives,” said Phyllis earnestly, pushing her classes back up on her nose.

“Yes, it is sad,” agreed Netta, twirling her spaghetti expertly around her fork. “One of my professors at Teacher’s College in Minnesota was forced to resign, just because he’d signed some petition about the Scottsboro Boys!”

Lois spoke up. “But Netta, if they asked your professor to leave his position, he was probably much more deeply involved than just signing a petition. Why, he might have been a sleeper agent, teaching you Communist doctrine without you even realizing it!” Lois had read selected chapters from J. Edgar Hoover’s masterly Masters of Deceit her sophomore year and had been vigilant about the Communist conspiracy ever since.

“It was a class called ‘Math Methods for Junior Learners,'”said Netta dryly. “If he could squeeze any Communist doctrine into that, he deserved a prize.”

Lois is so quick to believe anything that she would have been an ideal party member in 1984. Her paranoia, though, is pretty funny. She even believes smoking some weed will land you in the hospital addicted to heroin.

The author doesn’t shy away from Lois getting intimate with many women (while still not realizing she’s a lesbian). The scenes are mostly described as kissing and biting and touching breasts; nothing overly graphic is described in detail. Serious intimacy is loving and sensual. The less serious intimate situations are funny; women try to be super sexy by asking Lois about typing or filing as foreplay. Lois loves secretarial duties more than anyone you’ve ever met; she even files when she’s upset!

Finally, the book does something that caused me to be incapable of putting down any R.L. Stein book ever: it has cliffhanger chapters. Something is always suspicious or surprising in the last line, which made me feel like I was right back to when I was younger and snuggled into books like they were bean bag chairs.

I’m excited to read the next three books in the Lesbian Career Girl series. Both Dolly Dingle and Maxie Mainwaring are characters in Lois Lenz that I liked who will get their own books.

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