Tag Archives: literature

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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The Alpine Path

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The Alpine Path

If you followed along with my #20BooksofSummer challenge, you’ll remember there was a stretch in there — an 8 book stretch! — during which I was reading the Anne of Green Gables series. At the end of each Anne book was the same bio describing author L.M. Montgomery’s own life as baby without a mother and a grief-stricken father who gave two-year-old Montgomery to her grandparents. She is described as lonely; her grandparents are too harsh. Her later marriage is not a happy one, as her husband suffers from mental illness. Montgomery continues to write, but she laments her first Anne sequels: “I’m awfully afraid if the thing takes, they’ll want me to write her through college. The idea makes me sick.”

I would have never gathered any of this sadness from my latest read, The Alpine Path: The Story of My Career. The autobiography is a slim 60-something pages, and Montgomery sounds doggedly determined and relatively happy, thus making me question the entire book as a way to please readers instead of tell the truth. In fact, the original book was published in 1917 in Woman’s World magazine over the course of six months. At the time, she had published 6 books and was very popular.

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Since Montgomery has published books and is famous in Canada, she relies on readers to be faithful. Frequently, Montgomery describes moments from her life that inspired scenes in her fiction. However, I haven’t read anything other than the Anne series, so an allusion to The Story Girl, for example, is lost on me.

Montgomery’s personal stories occasionally bored me. I didn’t care that sailors landed on her island when she was a girl, nor did her grandparents’ history interest me, except when Montgomery’s humor shines through as she describes one relative who didn’t want to be dragged from England to Canada:

Bitterly homesick she was — rebelliously so. For weeks after her arrival she would not take off her bonnet, but walked the floor in it, imperiously demanding to be taken home. We children who heard the tale never wearied of speculating as to whether she took off her bonnet at night and put it on again in the morning, or whether she slept in it.

Although she’s famous, Montgomery refers to The Alpine Path as a book about her “career” — as if she doesn’t have one! As a child, she became very ill; when recovered, she devoured sausages (perfectly good ones) and lamented it:

Of course, by all the rules of the game, those sausages should have killed me, and so cut short that “career” or which I am writing. But they did not. These things are fated. I am sure that nothing short of pre-destination saved me from the consequences of those sausages.

In the early passages during which Montgomery describes her childhood, it’s easy to see connections to her writing. At least, connections to Anne Shirley. For instance, Montgomery doesn’t appreciate getting a hot lunch from her nearby home every day because all the other school children bring lunch pails, but when it’s too stormy to travel she takes her lunch and is “one of the crowd.” How happy she is those days! Childhood lunches factor into our personalities a great deal! Just ask Anne Lamott, who wrote that should you ever get stuck while writing, begin describing school lunches and you will never run out of material.

Despite her fame, Montgomery is highly relatable. She describes gentle teasing that she endured that scarred her for years. She explains that someone who hurt her feelings wouldn’t be aware that those feelings were hurt for years. Again, I felt the author relatable because even today bullies are calling people “too sensitive” as a form of insult to denote weakness and a personality handicap.

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Much later, Montgomery gets into the actual writing life. True, she wrote stories and in journals all through her youth (“descriptions of my favourite haunts, biographies of my many cats, histories of visits, and school affairs, and even critical reviews of the books I had read”), but an interest in feedback and publishing came later. I found the book tilted away from her actual writing life a great deal, making the text unbalanced, but it possibly worked much better in the magazine’s serial form.

All writers experience doubt, Montgomery reminds us, and when her father tells her that a poem she wrote “doesn’t sound much like poetry,” she stops writing for a time. Really, she is impressively unstoppable. She gets up at 6:00AM in a freezing house to write. She hates starting a story because it feels like so much work. She is surprised that she wrote a book because she just kept working and then had written the entire thing.

Montgomery wisely includes some caution, though not with instructional intent. Like many of us book bloggers, the author notes that a story with a moral is unjustified and more akin to swallowing “a pill in a spoonful of jam!” While family and friends forever have speculated on which character in a story is them, Montgomery notes, “Any artist knows that to paint exactly from life is to give a false impression of the subject.” Even strangers wrote to the poor woman, insisting that their lives are so interesting that she should write them down (haven’t all writers heard this?). One big point that struck me as particularly relevant in a time of “Girl” novels and dystopian trilogies was about money:

The book may or may not succeed. I wrote it for love, not money, but very often such books are the most successful, just as everything in the world that is born of true love has life in it, as nothing constructed for mercenary ends can ever have.

Yet, The Alpine Path took a turn 10 pages from the end. Montgomery lifelessly describes her travels to Scotland with her husband (who isn’t even named). We stopped here, we stopped there, she writes, and then the autobiography ends. It was terribly disappointing! Why she did not include more about publishing, writing, critics, and readers, I do not know. However, her now-published journals reveal her despair on her wedding day, the decline and deaths of her grandparents, and her husband’s mental illness. Granted, I have not read these journals in their entirety, but it would appear that The Alpine Path was written for devoted fans who wanted to see inside Montgomery’s life — and not find darkness.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová @RoseMetalPress

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The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová @RoseMetalPress

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage

by Kelcey Parker Ervick

Published by Rose Metal Press, November 2016


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

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

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

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

and she came to an untimely end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

with heavy clouds.

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

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

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

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

Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

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Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

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

by Barbara Ehrenreich

published by Hachette Book Group, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#BookReview The Summer She Was Under Water @QFPress @MichalskiJen

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#BookReview The Summer She Was Under Water @QFPress @MichalskiJen

The Summer She Was Under Water by Jen Michalski

published by Queen’s Ferry Press August 2016

*Disclaimer: I’ve known Jen for a number of years and consider her a friend. We’ve worked on a book tour together for her short story collection From Here; I used to write book reviews for her e-zine, JMWW; and one of my first stories ever published, “Hanged Cat,” appeared in JMWW. Therefore, I know I am terribly biased, but will be as honest as possible! Please check out Jen’s newest book available in both paperback and for Kindle!

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As Jen Michalski shared in her most recent Meet the Writer feature, The Summer She Was Under Water was two novels that got woven into one. The main story is about Samantha Pinski. We quickly learn that her father, Karl Pinski, a heavy drinker and mentally unstable, was a violent man. The family learned to placate the monster that is Karl. That is, except Sam’s brother, Steve, who felt he was Sam’s protector, pinning his father down during violent episodes.

But now Sam is 33 years old, has a book published, teaches writing at Hopkins. Her book, which is woven into the main story, is about a man who is pregnant. By page 8, readers are told Sam’s book is actually about Steve. Though she sounds like a success story, her past won’t let her go. And now Sam is going to the Pinski family cabin for the Fourth of July weekend. She’s bringing her new friend Eve as a sort of buffer. Steve, who has been absent for years, may or may not come. Sam can mostly escape her family in her world of academia, but she’s alone and tends to destroy relationships before they destroy her.

Readers learn that Sam has recently broken off a two-year relationship with a man from a wealthy family, Michael. Karl Pinski is now heavily medicated and sober, so he’s like a deflated balloon of his former self. The entire story takes place Friday through Sunday, Fourth of July weekend, though we also get flashbacks to explain complicated relationships, in addition to chapters from Sam’s book.

Readers are taught to like Steve when he finally shows up that weekend. We align with him when we learn in a flashback that Steve took the blame for binoculars Sam lost in the lake when they were kids, which led to his father beating Steve during a family BBQ instead of Sam. Yet, Sam doesn’t know if she wants Steve to come to the cabin, so we know something happened that caused her to hate her brother. But what?

Then Michael shows up — yes, the Michael with whom Sam just broke up — because he was invited by Sam’s mom, Pat Pinski. Sam thinks of Pat as a sort of Shakespeare of romance, trying to arrange staunch individuals into couples. Michael’s into craft beer and soccer (totally unAmerican) and crosses his legs in such a way that suggests he’s effeminate. What did Sam see in him?

Steve quickly suggests Sam, Michael, Eve, and he go out in the boat so he can pull them behind on inner tubes. Michael is goaded into taking a turn, and Steve does his best to fling Michael off in an effort to humiliate the “rich boy.” Really, you’ll want Michael to fly off because you’re rooting for the protective big brother at this point, not the unwelcome ex.

But Michalski expertly takes readers back in time to when Michael and Sam were dating and he first met her family at Thanksgiving. The uneducated Pinskis embarrass Sam, but she feels safe there with Michael. When Steve shows up — late and drunk — he starts to make remarks about Michael not being “vetted” into the family yet, so Michael can’t take over protecting Sam. Michael defends her, saying Sam is a capable woman. Steve won’t listen to some new guy:

I’ve known Sam a hell of a lot longer than you, buddy, better than you ever will. She don’t need no fucking preppy wallet to come in and be all high and mighty to her family.”

Where does Steve’s possessiveness come from? We see time and again the suggestion that Steve won’t let another man care for his little sister. At 35, Steve seems too old to be such a bully. As a result of taking readers back in time to show Michael is a supportive man, my opinions swapped. I realized that I had been tricked into distrusting the outsider with money and different tastes. Once I understood Michael isn’t a stereotype, I became a more attentive reader and suspicious of Steve.

Some parts of The Summer She Was Under Water are familiar: rich vs working-class families, an abusive father whose children turn into damaged adults, an overly-protective big brother, a mother who will always “stand by her man.” But the beauty of the novel is learning how it all really fits together. Why is Sam so miserable? Why did she break up with Michael? Why won’t Steve come home for years at a time? I thought I knew exactly what happened in the past based on contextual clues, but I was wrong. It’s much more complicated.

Summer She Was Under Water front only for screen

Eve, the “relatively new friend” Sam brought along for the weekend, is an interesting outsider at the Pinski cabin. She has a ragged past more like Steve’s, so she relates to him, which is meant to make readers relate to him and see Steve through eyes unclouded. Then, Sam starts to worry that her friend and brother are attracted to each other. Meanwhile, the narrative implies Sam herself may be attracted to Eve when we’re given flashbacks of Sam’s and Eve’s developing relationship. Michalski easily works in fluidity: lesbian, bi, straight, male, female, both.

I did wish that Eve and Steve’s names weren’t so similar. I can’t imagine these names were chosen accidentally — “eve” is a component of “Steve,” right? But for that very reason, my eyes would fill in “Eve” to be “Steve,” and vice versa, when I read. I wondered if Michalski actually changed her characters names a few times to get them just right. In a few places the wrong person is named (surely an error in editing), such as confusing Michael for Steve, and Carol (an aunt) for Pat Pinski. Although I hesitated and pieced together what the sentence meant to say, these errors are few and didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the story.

Don’t forget that there is a book within this book, too. The book Sam wrote has its own chapters written in italics. We meet a man who discovers he’s pregnant and wants to kill the baby. Then, a strange woman comes to help him prepare for the birth. The tone of Sam’s book is different from Michalski’s, which is a delight, as it wouldn’t make sense if Sam’s and Michalski’s voices were similar.

In a couple of places the chapters from Sam’s book are really far apart (about 60 pages), which could make it difficult to remember what was happening. I would flip back and re-read the last page of one of Sam’s chapters and then pick up at the next. Had Sam’s chapters been more evenly placed, the story of the pregnant man would be more familiar. It’s easy to flip around in the paperback version, though Kindle readers may have a more difficult time.

I do highly recommend this book, my friendship with Jen aside. Even now, I want to know what happens to Michael and Sam, to Eve and Steve, to Steve and Sam. Whose relationships strengthened, and whose died after that Fourth of July weekend? I keep thinking about them. The Summer She Was Under Water is an emotional giant.

*You can read an excerpt of the novel at The Nervous Breakdown!

Do You Keep Physical Books?

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Do You Keep Physical Books?

We’ve all heard it: the book worm whose house was filled wall-to-wall with beloved books. We see the pictures on social media of gorgeous library-like homes and reading nooks, causing jealousy and the desire to buy a home just like that, or to remodel our meager abodes. You’ve pictured yourself spinning around in a massive library, like Belle in Beauty and the Beast. You know you have.

library

But I’m here to argue that keeping every book you’ve ever bought doesn’t make you a better fan of literature than the next reader. I’m here to argue that for the good of those around you, you should get rid of most of your physical books.

You: Whhaaaaa…?

I know, right? It’s my belief that we’ve been fed a narrative (haha) that collecting books and surrounding ourselves with as many of them as we can cram into our homes is awesome. Aren’t you really building a safe, cozy (a word I’ve always loathed) space to “curl up with a good book” (a cliche I wish would disappear — who curls??) and feel happy?

Here are some things I’ve learned about keeping books:

#1 They’re filthy.

According to a chemical engineer, there are several reasons the paper in your physical books breaks down. Some are pretty basic: if you aren’t dusting incessantly, your books are breaking down. If you keep food near your bookshelves, the paper can break down. Open windows, poor ventilation, and obvious problems like a leaky roof all affect your books. Now, if you’re like me and suffering from ridiculous allergies right now because the trees are trying to get it on, then you know that having items in your house that collect dust and even mold spores is bad for your health.

Then there’s bug infestations. Did you know some bugs love books? I had a friend who got carpet beetles in her apartment, and the only way to get the bugs out of her hundreds of books was to put each book in it’s own ziplock bag in the freezer for four days.

carpet beetle.jpg

#2 They’re a bitch to move.

If you were a book lover from way back like me, you probably moved into your first apartment with a ton of books, which traveled in more boxes that any other possession. If you went to college to get a degree (and then another and another) like me, you’ve kept all your old textbooks because, I mean, what if you need them again?? As if your professors will magically choose the same books to teach in the years ahead! And if they do, they’re not likely the same editions (publishers make sure of that). And if they use the same books and the same editions, why are you taking that class twice? My husband and I both kept all the textbooks from our major courses…and neither of us has ever read them since. There are too many new books and too much updated information.

And what’s one of the most common themes of college living? College moving! Whether it’s into or out of the dorms, just down the street to a new apartment complex, back in with mom and dad, or into your very first grown-up-person house, college students tend to move every year. So when you call up your buddies and ask them to help you move in exchange for a case of Bud Light, be kind and tell them you’ve got about 20 boxes jam-packed full of books and that you live on the second floor. They’ll smell the slave labor immediately. I used to delight in coming up with new organizing systems for my books every time we moved, shelving them by color or author or publisher, but I always ended up utter ill from handing so much dust. I mean, I’m flipping the dust into my own nose holes every time I open a book before shelving it (I’m too cautious to be a book smeller, like most of you).

book box

This is what $1.90 per hour looks like.

#3 Your home “library” doesn’t look like the ones on the internet.

Books can make a home beautiful and welcoming; this I admit. And of course when we get a free moment we scrutinize our friends’ shelves and judge them mercilessly by the amount of crap vs. classics (meaning what we think sucks vs. what makes us happy). But does your library really have the beauty that you see in pictures? Are your selves not haphazardly packed, books on top of the furniture, shelves bending helplessly in the middle under the weight?

picturing

You’re picturing your home like this.

 

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This is more like what you have. There’s an excellent overwhelming sense of beige in this picture, don’t you think?

#4 You pay taxes in a bad economy.

You know that weird building with all the computers in it? It’s called the library (yes, it has books, too). If you pay taxes in the United States (and even if you don’t) the library is free for you to use. Many have unlimited borrowing agreements, so long as you don’t mess up and bring back the newest Babysitter’s Club book that you accidentally dumped a bottle of water on (sorry, Ms. Fran, but it was 1993!), there’s nothing stopping you! If things are tight financially at your house, consider checking out books from the library, which helps their stats and convinces politicians that libraries are actually being used. Think of the things you could do with all the extra cash, too. I know that when I magically appear in a book store (for I do not willing choose to go, it just happens — I swear!) I always drop at least $100. But what about highlighting amazing passages in the text? What if you really, really love that book?? Well, now you can confidently buy the book after reading the library copy. If you love it so much, highlight in it during your second reading.

#5 When you keep your books to yourself, you’re missing a community-building opportunity.

Have you heard of Little Free Library? They’re popping up all over the United States and are a great presence in communities. Leave a book, take a book. Awesome! For kids in the neighborhood who can’t get a ride to the library during those long summer days, they can walk to the nearest book box and see what’s new.

little-free-library1

If you have the money to buy books frequently, you’re privileged. Not everyone can even get to the library during business hours. The Little Free Library boxes are located in the center of communities, meaning people can walk to them. I put in physical copies that authors/publishers send me when I’m done with them. I feel like I’m giving a gift to someone else because the writer’s hard work gifted that book to me. Every time I drop off new books, I see which of the old books I’ve put in there are now gone, and I feel a rush of excitement and silent connection, knowing someone nearby is reading a book I’ve enjoyed. I’ve also learned that some people are a bit nervous about books. When I went to drop off some books to the Little Free Library one time, a man was there. I waved, and he ran away. I called him back, encouraging him to look at the books I brought with me. We made a small connection as I told him a bit about each one.

I’ve also recently discovered book parties! Throw a party, invite tons of friends, and request that everyone bring 2-3 books they no longer want. Everyone puts their books on a table, and however many books a person brings is how many they can take home. These events have proven successful when a person who picks up a book finds the former owner and they start talking books. I mean, isn’t that why you blog? To talk about books? Much better than “So, what do you do for a living?” or “What’s your major?” Ugh.

Getting rid of books is hard, but here’s how I do it:

I ask myself three questions:

  1. “Am I going to use this book in the future when I teach a lit class?”
  2. “Am I going to read it again?”
  3. “Can I get it at the library?”

Sometimes I’m not sure if I’ll read a book again, but I know it came from a small press and thus won’t be at the library, so I keep it. Why not, I paid for it. If it’s at the library but I’m going to teach from it (I need my own copies when I teach), then I keep it. Otherwise, if a book is at the library and I’m not going to teach from it and I’m not sure (doubts are okay) I’ll read it again, I get rid of that book. I want to share my book’s life with another. They also make excellent gifts at family gatherings where you have a White Elephant gift.

So, as a person with three literature/creative writing degrees who is a composition/literature professor, I say let some books go. A house load of dusty books doesn’t make you the bigger book worm. It doesn’t mean you love books more, or even read more than those of use who are willing to buy (or rent) electronic copies, use libraries, and donate our surplus reading materials.

Where do you keep most of your books? What does your book situation look like? How often do you buy books? What causes you to get rid of a book? I’d love to know in the comments!

Jackpot

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Jackpot

Jackpot by Tsipi Keller

published by Spuyten Duyvil press, 2004

Tsipi Keller wrote an intense trio of books that all “psychological portraits” of women. In her “Meet the Writer” feature, Keller referred to the books as a trilogy; however, the novels are not related. I’ve read two, and they have the same creepy, deeply psychological feel to them. I read Elsa first, which was published in 2014, after Keller sent it to me for review. I was disturbed by it, but intrigued to read more from this author, so she sent me the other two books. Jackpot came in 2004, and Retelling came in 2006. I’ll read Retelling soon; the synopsis is chilling.

In Jackpot, Tsipi Keller is a master of making the reader concerned about the well-being of the main character. Maggie is a 26-year-old woman living in New York City who has always been a middle-class, hand-me-downs kind of person. She meets 25-year-old Robin at a job she got with a temp agency, and the narrator notes Maggie is the one who really pushed for them to remain friends after their short-lived jobs are finished. Maggie feels that over time the two became close friends, but any reader will find this hard to believe on the first page. Robin loves to refer to Maggie as “sweetie” in a way that sounds demeaning. She criticizes Maggie, saying she is “naive and not assertive enough,” “insecure,” “negative,” “too cheerful,” “such a baby,” “so shrewd,” and has a “common variety of social phobia or something worse.” Notice how many of these contradict.

There is so much doubt and hesitancy in Maggie, and she has a number of reasons to feel that way. The story starts with Maggie sitting in Robin’s living room. They are supposed to go out to dinner, but Robin instead brings up going on a trip to Paradise Island in the Bahamas. A description of Robin is very important to know:

Good breeding and class; it is clear that Robin never lacked for anything. Robin. who is secretive about her exact money situation, but lets it be known she comes from wealth, every so often dropping a hint or two about her glamorous parents in L.A. She is lavish when it comes to her own needs, but calculating and quite the tightwad when it comes to others.

Why doesn’t Robin go with her friend Lucy, like she did last time, Maggie wants to know. Robin simply says she wants to go with Maggie. This is five pages in, and already I’m so worried about Maggie. In response to Robin saying she wants to vacation with Maggie, not Lucy, Maggie thinks:

So, it is all in her head. She must accept the possibility that Robin has no ulterior motives, that Robin is just being Robin, and that her own convoluted thoughts and distrust are a direct result of her middle-class circumstances, circumstances she’d do well to forget and put behind her. She should feel privileged, and frequently she does, that Robin has accepted her as a friend. At times she even wonders why Robin sticks with her.

If Maggie is worried, surely the reader should be too (*warning bells*). And since when are we “lucky” when certain people like us? A character so self-doubting is sure to be abused in some way. Robin sits there oinking on a bag of candy without offering Maggie any. When Maggie decides yes, she’ll go to Paradise Island, Robin practically throws her out of the apartment, exclaiming, “I don’t know what’s the matter with me, but I couldn’t go out [to dinner] if you paid me. You sure you don’t mind? I feel a little guilty.” Maggie says she doesn’t mind, but she cries all the way home. More warning bells.

Robin is immediately juxtaposed with Susan, Maggie’s co-worker. Susan plays a tiny role in the book, mostly to show readers what a good friend actually looks like and expose thoroughly what a horrible human Robin is, in case you doubt it. The author taking this extra step set off more bells, as if she did not want readers to forget nice people aren’t like Robin. But when Maggie is with Susan, two important things happen: she drinks way too much and gets sloppy drunk, and she admits that she was married from ages 20-23 to a man who had sexual issues. Maggie’s ex-husband claimed he didn’t like the way her vagina smelled and thus only wanted her to perform oral sex. Or, Maggie admits, he “insisted she wear a veil or a scarf over her face during sex. He asked her to pretend she was a prostitute or a stranger.” More warning bells! There is a deep problem with sex and shame waiting to bubble up in the novel…you can just tell.

There isn’t a change in Maggie’s personality until she and Robin get on the plane for the Bahamas. Robin is extra grumpy, and Maggie notices that Robin is just a bit fat. Maggie is incredibly thin and lithe, so she feels smug. Maggie immediately scolds herself for being petty. But at the hotel she learns Robin has packed beautiful party dresses, whereas Maggie packed casuals (because Robin told her to). More warning bells! Where is Robin going in party dresses that she hasn’t told Maggie about? Then Maggie sees Robin reading an airport book and mentally belittles her for reading such trash. Immediately, she feels bad again. Maggie believes, “She wants to love Robin always, she wants Robin to love her back. Everything is so much simpler when she can trust Robin.” Which means she doesn’t always trust Robin, right? There’s also this connection between wanting Robin’s love and being shamed by her ex-husband that’s rather brilliant. Tsipi Keller doesn’t have Maggie seek love in another man, but in friendship, which is different from many books. But a page later, Robin says, “Once we get there, you won’t need me, I promise. You’ll be having too much fun.” Does this mean Robin is going to ditch Maggie?

Maggie goes swimming in the ocean, and when she returns to the towel where Robin rests, she finds a man, too. He and Robin laugh at everything Maggie says, even things that aren’t funny. Robin makes sly remarks like “See what I told you?” and Maggie wonders why this guy is so tan when he says he just got in from New Jersey that day. Things feel suspicious! At this point, I’m just waiting for something terrible to happen.

And Robin does start to disappear. Maggie turns around and Robin is gone, like when they go gambling in the hotel casino. Eventually, Maggie starts thinking “fuck Robin” a lot. I feel Maggie’s change in attitude is a bit quick. While I felt suspicious building up to Robin disappearing, Maggie didn’t. She was naive and hopeful, so the quick turn around didn’t quite make sense to me.

Then Maggie slowly tries to emulate Robin. She walks around naked in front of the maid, but immediately regrets it. The author shows the reader that Maggie wants to be something new, someone who isn’t middle class, someone who doesn’t have a vagina “odor.” Maggie’s body, she believes, is better than Robin’s, and Robin’s money can’t really change that. Maggie’s body, when she feels like she’s in control of it, gives her a power she’s never had before.

Then Robin full-on abandons Maggie, sneaking into the room in the middle of the night to grab her things and leave on a yacht with an old man. And everything goes to hell. The author ties together Maggie getting drunk with her co-worker way back in the beginning with her drunken state on vacation, suggesting Maggie gets drunk more often than her sweet, intelligent character would if she weren’t so damaged. Maggie starts hanging out in the hotel casino all night, drinking, not eating, and blacking out. She becomes conscious again when a man starts to have intercourse with her. He’s not wearing a condom…but his repetitive apologies make her want to laugh at him! She then starts crying about losing money at the casino, so he leaves $100 on the bed.

While my first thought is Maggie has been raped and she should go home (Robin’s not even there anymore), Tsipi Keller continues the story in the Bahamas. Various versions of the above scene play out (blacking out and rape), and I started making the connection that while Maggie isn’t asking for money to have sex with strangers, it’s happening nonetheless. How does this continue to happen?

Woven throughout the novel are examples of sexual traumas Maggie’s experienced: as a 13-year-old girl newly in bras, a man grabbed her breast and was disappointed to find padding. Maggie remembers feeling shame that she “failed to please him” in some way. At about seven a strange man molests her after tricking her into his home. Another time, when she played hide-and-seek at a friends house, the friend’s dad pulled her aside and made her touch his genitals. So much sexual abuse in one story, the but the more I read and listen to my friends, the more I realize these examples are common. Because Maggie’s body was out of her control when she was a girl, the novel suggests, she can use her body to gain control over her life as an adult. And if she’s going to get molested and raped anyway, why not profit from it?

To be honest, it took me a while to realize this. I couldn’t understand why Maggie was totally losing it. Two of the abuses she suffered as a child are lumped together in the book. If they were spread out, or perhaps closer to the scenes during which strange men are using her body, like a moment she remembers when she regains consciousness, I may have made the connection faster.

Truly, there is a lot to think about in this book. The ending isn’t the end because women experience sexual trauma at all ages, and how they deal with it varies. I don’t feel as if I’ve given any spoilers because the book doesn’t have a “the end” feel to it. Some events in the last chapters I found difficult to put together, but after mulling over it all for a few days, I realized that I did race through this book, wondering what would happen. I was worried about Maggie and wanted to figure out Robin’s approach to life. Therefore, I recommend this book and highly suggest you read the trio together.

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

Bogeywoman

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Bogeywoman

Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon

343 pages

Published by Sun & Moon Classics in 1999

*Gordon became a bestselling author when her book Lord of Misrule won the 2010 National Book Award. Bogeywoman, despite being on the Los Angeles Times list of best books in 2000, is virtually unknown, and a simple Google search shows there is almost no information about it. I sent an e-mail to the author recently to see if she’ll agree to do an interview, but in the meantime I’m really proud to be able to share this review of my favorite book with you and add a little to the conversation about this brilliant work!

For most of my life, I have been that person who hates listening to most people read aloud. Remember the kids in class in elementary school stuttering along? (I actually kicked a boy in 4th grade because he couldn’t read; my behavior has since improved). Then there were those kids in high school who tried to read at 100 miles per hour to prove how smart they were, inevitably skipping over all punctuation and killing the rhythm. Even some authors at their own readings have a hard time making their words more lively than a used tissue. But when I got hearing aids a few years ago, I was told I needed to read aloud to strengthen the nerves in my ears that were still alive but very weak due to my hearing deficit. My husband wanted to cheer me on by volunteering as my solo audience. I started with Lynda Barry’s novel Cruddy, one of my favorite books included firmly in my “Girls Gone Wild” self-created genre. Not Girls Gone Wild the franchise, but truly girls (about 12 to 18) who are nearly feral. My husband loved Cruddy. And thus, we have been reading aloud to each other since. Our most recent “bedtime story” was Bogeywoman, an experimental, innovative, deeply moving novel.

Bogeywoman Cover

I left the cover quite large so you could see all the little details.

The story begins with the narrator proclaiming that she is the Bogeywoman and that she was sent to an insane asylum. Someone named Doctor Zuk got her kicked out, but then Doctor Zuk got kicked out too. The narrator says, “But first she saved me, and that’s when I lost her — if I ever had her — unless I am her. Am I Zuk? (13). Really, this is enough to make a wimpy reader quit. It already sounds existential, and it’s only the first paragraph.

Then, our narrator begins (almost as if in mid-sentence) to tell her reader the story of how she ended up in an asylum when she wasn’t even insane (according to her — she’s the narrator). It all starts at Camp Chunkagunk, the narrator’s favorite place in the world. She’s on her 9th summer there at age 16, a true devotee. The camp has all kinds of strange names for activities: Lake Twinny, Chipmunk vs. Big Bear, Wood Wiz, Upside Down Day, Lake Sci, and Evening Pro. The narrator throws all of these terms at you as if you’re a camper yourself and don’t need much explanation. She also tosses out names — Margaret, Merlin, Suzette — but doesn’t tell you who they are. They are her sister, father, and step-mother, a hands-off family, making Ursula quite orphan-like except her dad is world famous for a puppet show he does on TV. It can get confusing. Let’s be fair, though; this narrator did explain she’d been sent to an insane asylum, so you have to just go with it.

“Going with it” is a rewarding part of Bogeywoman. A lot of times I feel like a first person narrator is really just the author using a character as a puppet to say what he/she likes. A book I know that got a lot of criticism over such puppetry was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Jonathan Safran Foer was accused of putting his 28-year-old voice into 9-year-old Oskar’s thoughts. The narrator of Bogeywoman is entirely her own teen. I met author Jaimy Gordon at a reading. She looks like the kind of lady whose mother signed her up for ballet and equestrian when she was two — no sign of the nutbar that is the narrator.

To help you out, should you choose to read this book (and you should), let me give you some summary of what happens to land the narrator in an asylum:

She’s at Camp Chunkagunk, age 16, floating on her back in Sourhunk Lake, when she realizes she wants to put her hand between another girl’s legs. It hits her like a freeway accident: she’s a lesbian. The narrator then goes back and explains that her name is Ursula Koderer, but everyone calls her the Bogeywoman. She earned the name when she was 7 after she put a snake down a chimney in the camp counselors’ cabin and thundered, “I’m the Bogeywoman.” But after she realizes she’s a lesbian, that’s what Bogeywoman actually means to Ursula. She’s an unhygienic girl whose descriptions of herself would make you think she were a potato with sprouts.

Ursula thinks she falls in love with her cabin mate, Lou Rae Greenrule, who’s also a strange girl. Ursula finds Lou Rae one day putting clay she found in the ground on her face as a beauty aid, but she’s sitting stark naked with only her long, long hair covering her. Ursula gets Lou Rae to head toward the perimeters of camp to find more clay, which is where Ursula makes a move on the younger girl. Lou Rae acts like she wants the physical contact, but then changes her mind, leaving Ursula out to dry!

Later, Ursula seeks out Willis Marie Bundgus (the “wood wizardess” who teaches tracking skills at the camp) for some solidarity after getting ditched. She finds Willis talking to a camp handyman, a really gumpy guy named Ottie Grayson (aren’t the names just fabulous?). Willis is trying to put the moves on ol’ Ottie, but turns out, Lou Rae promised Ottie she’d hook up with him! Ursula puts it all together and goes on a rampage. She runs away from camp, heading past the perimeter, which is punishable by expulsion from Camp Chunkagunk. As she walks, Ursula carves a map of the camp into her arms. She bleeds all over, so she takes off her shirt (she doesn’t wear a bra) to wrap her arms up. And that’s how the police find her: walking down the road, naked from the belly button up, bleeding all over the place. This is how Ursula winds up in an expensive insane asylum in Baltimore.

Now, why did I summarize so much? I never summarize so much! It’s you’re job to read the book, right? Well, the beginning of Bogeywoman can be really hard to slog through. Even my husband, dutiful listener that he is, expressed hesitancy about my continuing after the first chapter (which is 55 pages). It doesn’t seem that complicated, though, right? Here’s the thing: readers are in Ursula’s head, so she talks like Ursula. She makes up a lot of her own words, and her phrasing is a bit off. Jaimy Gordon makes use of comma splices to keep the reading practically running. There’s little room to breath. Here’s an example of Ursula’s thoughts when she finds out Lou Rae is hiding in the bushes, waiting to hook up with Ottie, and he’s walking around to find her. Ursula is hiding in a tree watching it happen:

I guess I’d watched too many Saturday serials where Hopalong Cassidy drops on Bullet from the fiery hayloft of the burning livery stable. When Ottie, whistling, passed under the apple tree I uttered a mad gargle — Keep your mitts off her — and without exactly thinking about it I dropped on his shoulders, boxed his bubblegum-pink ears with my fists, got his skinny neck in a death grip with my skinny thighs, hung upside down gasping Keep your mitts off her and pounding his stomach, and finally I let go with my thighs and plunged to earth, tackling him on the way down. “Whoa, whoa,” he was yelling, “cool it, Bogey-woman, you’re right off your noodle, whaddaya mean, off who?” The funny thing is, I wasn’t mad at him, I swear I wasn’t. It was that dirty rotten Lou Rae I was mad at, who had loved me for twelve-and-a-half minutes and left me, but I wasn’t going to put a hand on her, was I? Lemme die first.

In the above quote, you get an idea of the pacing of the sentences. However, Ursula makes up a lot of words too! Here are some of them and their meanings:

  • buggy = crazy
  • bug house = insane asylum
  • dreambox mechanic/adjuster = psychiatrist
  • Bug Motels = Ursula’s group who play music on instruments made out of hospital items in the bughouse
  • girlgoyle = female
  • fuddy = male
  • spooky-fluted = threatening way of speaking
  • * Unbeknownst to Everybody = lesbian
  • sumpn = something
  • godzillas sake = for God’s sakes
  • momps = breasts
  • oink = fuck (as in, “go oink yourself”)
  • cheese = jeez

Ursula also gets names wrong, like calling her psychiatrist, Dr. Feuffer, “Foofer” and Dr. Zuk’s home “Caramel-Creamistan” (that should be Karamul-Karamistan). She mixes up famous people, too, like Sigmund Food and Margaret Meat. The made up names and words begin right away. You’re not given time to adjust and slowly learn them, you “go with it” or quite reading. If you read the book more than once, you realize Ursula gives away the whole plot early on, including the details, but in a first read, you’re just trying to figure out your head from your lower parts. I love this deep inventiveness from Jaimy Gordon.

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2011 Vintage cover I don’t like nearly as much as the 1999 version.

The absolute best part of this novel are the diverse voices. Oh, God, Jaimy Gordon is so good at it. Let me give you some samples with the preface that if you read this book aloud it is so fun. You can’t NOT do the voices because Gordon spells words phonetically. Please be aware that I triple checked that there are no typos in these quotes; this is how people’s voices are written:

From Reginald — “the Regicide” — an African American orderly in the bughouse insulting Ursula:

I use to think you smart but now I see you don’t have the sense to come in out the rain. You don’t know how many pea beans make five. You don’t have the sense God gave a nanny goat. You the type climb on the mental clothesline pole to see which way the storm be passing. You ain’t got the motherwit to track a rhino in four foot of snow. You don’t know which way you at, girl. You couldn’t get there if I put you there.

(My favorite Regicide insult is when, to tell Ursula how dirty she is, he says, “You dusty as a peanut too”).

From Chug, an African American man makes a living “junking” (looking for crap to sell) who thinks Ursula is a prostitute. The white fuzz is lint from her sweatshirt stuck in drying blood after she’s carved on her arms again (self-mutilation):

You the sorriest-looking raggedy-ass girl-boy ho I ever see and that white fuzz on you arms scare a hound dog off a gut wagon. Now gone home. Get.

From Doctor Zuk, a older female dreambox mechanic Ursula falls in love with, who we learn is from Karamul-Karamistan (not a real place but definitely something Soviet-like):

With you, Miss Bogeywoman, is all game. Is funny hunger for craziness, itch for crazy. …Don’t worry, I tell no one. You are crazy like hare in March, like weasel in henhouse maybe. You want to be crazy. Is some kind mating dance with you.

From Suzette, Ursula’s step-mother, who tells Ursula she’s happy Ursula’s not in the bughouse anymore (instead of an “er” sound she gives an “oi” sound):

That place was fine for a month or two…and, as I recall, the poisonnel — wasn’t his name Reginald? — was extremely kind. So helpful! But for two years, as a sort of sleepover boarding school without the school, the place was a little overpriced, don’t you think? I mean, Oi-sula, the bills are breaking your poor father’s back.

And each and every character is like this: a unique voice that you can actually hear in your head! No two characters sound the same. It’s the most amazing use of language to make characters come to life that I’ve ever experienced in a book.

I want to end by saying that Bogeywoman is about a teenage girl trying to survive as a lesbian using self-mutilation in the 1970s, a time when you were considered literally crazy if you were gay. The novel doesn’t tell you it’s set in the 1970s, but during the reading I attended, Gordon said this book was inspired by her sister, who actually spent time in an asylum for being a lesbian. But, it’s a really funny book, too. Ursula pursues Dr. Zuk with unwavering love, gets into trouble with the Bug Motels, and escapes the bughouse once or twice. I’ll end with this passage about a strange resident in the bughouse:

Why Mrs. Wilmot was still in the Teenage Ward after all these years, nobody knew. Wilmot was a skinny-shanked, potbellied old girl of around sixty, in a buttonless (or she’d have unbuttoned it) pink chemise, with skin like a wet brown bag sliding down her bones. Now that woman was crazy, which, come to think of it, did nothing for her prestige with us Bug Motels. Mostly what she did was sit on the bench just inside the entrance to the Adolescent Wing and pull up her dress and waggle the peapod, yes I mean her graypink coochie in its skimpy ring of grizzled whiskers, in full view of us all.

green bogey

2004 cover from Green Integer press

 

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.

Step Aside Pops.jpg

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.

 

Women in Clothes

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Women in Clothes
Book Cover

Book Cover

Women in Clothes (2014, Blue Rider Press) is an anthology unlike any kind before it. At 515 pages, you may wonder what so many women have to say about their clothes, their relationship to clothes, and what they think of other women’s clothes. In 2013 I was still an active on Facebook (you won’t find me there now). Sheila Heti was a FB friend of mine, though we didn’t really know each other. She had done a reading at my college, and I liked that her work was odd, and that she, too looked unique in a way I couldn’t place, so I friended her, which many of us do. Through FB, Heti put out a call for participants in a survey for women about clothes. That was about all I knew, but I felt the tug of my past quizzy self asking me to do it, thinking of those years as a teenager when I filled out hours of questionnaires (what’s your favorite color? what’s the first thing you do when you wake up? etc.) my friends sent to each other, typically through AOL e-mail. I responded to Heti’s request and filled out a long survey about clothes, style, make up, and jewelry.

Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton, & Sheila Heti (L to R).  Photograph by Gus Powell.

Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton, & Sheila Heti (L to R). Photograph by Gus Powell.

In 2014, I learned that Women in Clothes was not only a reality, but it was a huge project. Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton collected surveys from around the world, conducted interviews, gathered photo evidence, stories, and diagrams about fashion from over 639 (myself included) participants. The anthology is described as “essentially a conversation among hundreds of women of all nationalities—famous, anonymous, religious, secular, married, single, young, old—on the subject of clothing, and how the garments we put on every day define and shape our lives.” I received my contributor’s copy and must admit, I was a bit shocked when I held it. This book is enormous, and because it’s not a narrative, I wasn’t sure how to approach it. In all honesty, I put the book in my bathroom and decided it’s short sections would make such a room the perfect place for it. Occasionally, I would take the book into another room and read it there, but there is so much information that it seemed better to read only one small section at a time.

I read Women in Clothes cover to cover, skipping very little. One page shows a diagram of stains on clothes, which I didn’t care to read thoroughly. The fiction stories, though there aren’t many, were too avant garde for me. But overall, I read the whole thing, front to back.

The anthology begins with a conversation between Heti, Julavits, and Shapton. It’s a bit gossipy and teenager in tone, which I found grating, but I can see how the authors were trying to keep the dialogue as real as possible, or perhaps they even recorded what they said and typed the conversation verbatim. I’ve read a number of reviews on Goodreads that point out a dislike of this introduction to how the idea for the book began, and I must admit that I also wish it started more professionally.

What I didn’t notice about Women in Clothes at first is its power to change the reader. First, I was copying quotes I enjoyed onto my Goodreads account to share with others. But half way through, suddenly it dawned on me that I was staring at strangers’ outfits, comparing the clothes people in groups wore, and grabbing and feeling all the fabrics in clothing stores as I walked by the racks. I began trying on clothes, noticing cut and color with a more fastidious eye that I had previously, back when I figured if it covered my body it must “fit.”

dresses

Tania Van Spyk’s dress sets part II

People tended to respond to my quotes on Goodreads. I often found women funny, strong, curious, and confused about clothes in a way that I am, but didn’t realize. Here are some excerpts where women discover things about themselves:

from You Don’t Know What I Deal With: the women from the podcast BLACK GIRLS TALKING:

“That’s an advantage of living in an area that’s populated by actual black people. You get to see other black people living relatively normal lives, with bangin’ hair. I only found natural communities because I have scalp issues…probably related to getting relaxers, and I was just Googling, and I was like What else can I do? Then I found natural hair, and I kind of just waded my way through the murk.”–Alesia: (25-27)

from a survey titled “Men Looking at Women”:

“In my family, I was know for my ‘sausage fingers.’ There was a family friend I really respected, a father of one of my friends. One day in the summer when I was reading on the couch, just being an awkward teen and feeling really ugly, he walked through the room and said, ‘You have the hands of the Madonna.’ I realized that we tell ourselves stories about he we think we are. It’s better if it’s a nice story.”–Karima Cammell (329)

And then there are informative moments, where readers can learn something:

from Flower X: smell scientist Leslie Vosshall speaks to Heidi Julavits:

LESLIE: “The current fashion in perfumes I find very depressing. A lot of people smell like vanilla blackberry ice cream: very vanilla, very musky, but with fruit layered on top.”

HEIDI: “I hate to tell you this, but I’m wearing a vanilla scent. It makes me feel like a cookie. A happy cookie.” (253-256)

And, of course, there is lots of humor when women talk about clothes:

from a survey titled “Strangers”:

“I once met an elderly woman on an airplane and we started talking. I told her how much I liked her outfit, which I can’t remember in detail now but which I definitely remember as being quite fabulous. She thanked me, then said, Every morning that I wake up and realize I’m not dead is a chance for me to say ‘Fuck it.’ So I dress like this.”–Fatima G. (351)

Women describe photos of their mothers

Women describe photos of their mothers

Women in clothes isn’t just pages of writing; there are a number of images, such as photocopies of women’s hands, pictures of mothers, and a series of women who swap outfits (so we can see how clothes change with bodies). There are tons of images, both in color and black and white. I found the most touching to be pictures of mothers that daughters submitted, who then describe what they think of their moms.

I recommend this book as a cultural artifact. I recommend it for it’s uniqueness. I recommend it to get you thinking about your own exterior and how it affects your interior–and vice versa.

This review was written after I read my contributor’s copy. I make no money and gain no success from having two of my survey answers appear in this book, but it could cause some bias because I want the book to do well, yet feel that it stands on its own merit.