Tag Archives: magical realism

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.

Fat Girl, Terrestrial #readwomen #bookreview @FCtwo

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Fat Girl, Terrestrial #readwomen #bookreview @FCtwo

Fat Girl, Terrestrial by Kellie Wells
published by FC2, September 2012

“As you can imagine, I have never been very successful at being a girl, though, for my mother’s sake, I have tried. I have wambled about on gimlet heels that left divots in hardwood floors, permed my hair into a fungal fuzz, wrestled my hips into girdles, painted onto my face a bright hoax of come-hither allure, following closely the prescription in those fashion magazines that advise women how to be more woman than they already are (or less), but this was all a disguise that fooled no one, least of all my mother; an authority on feminine.”

Going into any FC2 book is about like jumping down the rabbit hole: I know it’s going to be different (see FC2’s motto), and I want to experience different whole-heartedly, and yet I’m not sure how much plot will be a factor versus other forms of storytelling. Wells’s novel begins with quite a bit of emphasis on plot and goes off into many tributaries of stories from there.

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Meet Wallis Grace Armstrong, a giant of a woman. She’s 8 feet, 11 (and-a-half) inches and 490 pounds. We first get to experience Wallis in the present; she’s walking alone at night when a man presses a knife to her throat and threatens her. What she doesn’t know when she blasts him with pepper spray is that he’s asthmatic, so her aggressor, Hazard Planet, dies. Wallis’s police report is viewed skeptically, for who would dare attack such an enormous woman? Fortunately, Wallis sticks up for herself to the police, reminding them that “a violent crime against an individual occurs every eighteen seconds and an assault occurs every twenty-nine seconds….You never know when some…flour enthusiast might set up a mill and start grinding…” Wallis decides to meet Hazard’s family, which includes a mother and his sister, Vivica Planet. Lo and behold, Vivica is a giantess as well, “solid as a diamond.” What will this family think of the woman who accidentally murdered their kin?

Something is a little odd about Vivica’s response to Wallis’s visit: “You believe I’m angry with you for what you’ve done, think perhaps I hate you for killing my brother. You imagined no matter what my brother was like I must have loved him very much, because he is, he was, after all, my brother, and that’s what people do, love their brothers, isn’t that right? Brothers, like fathers and husbands, tycoons, magnates, deities, kings, presidents, despots, dictators, do what they do knowing, in the end, we have no choice but to love them?” Vivica’s comparisons of Hazard to male figures that we can deduce are associated negatively in her mind make readers suspicious of what Vivica’s and Hazard’s relationship was like before his death. It’s not until nearly the end of the book that we learn more.

There are some more moments in the present of the novel, including Wallis visiting a family who claims their future daughter-in-law hanged herself in their barn. Wallis’s specialty is finding small clues in crime scenes that no one else notices because she creates teeny replicas of the scene at home. The problem is that Wallis has always seen her very body as a “crime someone had committed, a Class 1 felony, a crime [she] was determined to solve.” Should she ever find who committed the crime, she would punish him, which would make her “immediately shrink to fit that girly frock, and [her] mother would love [her] and coddle [her] and wish [her] no harm.”

Crime is not new to Wallis as an adult. When she was a girl–very large but young–Wallis tried to get kidnapped so she would feel like she was worthy of someone’s attention. Fortunately for her, she encounters a nice man who has a daughter of his own, though he looks how Wallis perceives criminals who steal little girls. She also helped a bit on the case of a girl missing from her hometown. Wallis and her brother Obie appeared in the newspaper as a result. It’s very early in the book (about five pages in) that we learn that Obie will disappear later, and that the present is about twenty years after that disappearance. Except Wallis can’t help find Obie and is of no help to authorities. She doesn’t know where he is or what happened.

Obie is a strange boy, one who we would never find in real life (though life is stranger than fiction, so, really, who knows). Obie sees Wallis as a god. Why wouldn’t she be? Only someone that large who walks the earth with her head that close to heaven could be a god. He prays at the foot of her bed at night and asks her to tell the biography of god. If you don’t think a giant woman and her devoted brother are too odd, that’s fine. Kellie Wells takes it slowly for us. But then we learn that Obie can talk to animals. His voice is also much more adult that it should be, giving him the wisdom of a learned philosopher. For example, “God is less knowledge than buoyancy in the acquiescence to its inevitable absence.” I know many readers complained of Oskar in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close being a young boy with Jonathan Safran Foer’s brain, but Obie goes way beyond Oskar. Foer’s character is overly tuned in–or at least this is how we can perceive him if we want–but Obie is like a religious professor and Dr. Dolittle mixed into one (in fact, the detective looking for the missing children is named Doolittle, though this may suggest he isn’t worthy of his occupation).

The more I read Obie, the more I struggled with his character. I was especially perplexed when trying to think of reasons why Kellie Wells would choose Wallis’s brother as worshiper. Wallis also has a dance instructor (in the present setting) who is attracted to her and how large she is. A romantic relationship might help readers see why Wallis is so close to a character who sees her as deity. It’s not until much, much later that we learn that Wallis and Obie are meant to be foils to Vivica and Hazard.

It is the interest in a god and who god is or isn’t that causes the tributaries in the story. An assignment from when Vivica was a girl is shared, suggesting how Vivica feels about men and worship. The assignment is to write a letter to a historical figure, and Vivica addresses the letter to “King Hatshepsut, Former Dowager Queen, Vivifier of Hearts, Wife of God, Divine Adoratrice of Amun, United with Amun in the presence of Nobles, Matkaare, Truth is the Soul of the Sun God, Esteemed Pharoh.” Hatshepsut becomes a gender bender when she marries her brother (making her the wife of god in her lifetime), who dies, which means she wants to rule (as god), so Hatshepsut dresses like a man. Her stepson, however, ruins her reign by essentially erasing her from history’s memory. If his predecessor is a woman, he will be humiliated. When Hatshepsut’s mummy is found, Vivica raves that a god of the past isn’t allowed to be so small. How can a god be small? Vivica doesn’t appear to want to be ruled by men and admires those who agree with her, but she’s also not listening to any small women, either.

There are many other stories of creation and gods in the book: a modified Adam and Eve, the tale of a baby born out of an ear, how man is created by Allah, the Book of Ezekiel (a homeless prophet), and a pied piper who takes children after destroying rabbits. Kellie Wells’s last spiritual tale explores the crucifixion:

“…and he saw the swelling serry of the people of posterity whose perishing his sacrifice would reverse (far too many, he thought, to fit inside the most generous paradise) would find more and more ways to inflict suffering–they’d have a genius for it–sometimes in the name of vengeance, often in the name of nothing, and he saw that they would learn to do so with staggering efficiency and that there was a vast and endless freshet of the blood of humans and animals waiting to boil across the millennia to come (today was like every other that would follow), and just before the beating of the man’s heart came kindly to a halt, this heart turning its charity at last on him, he realized there was no such thing as love and never had been and that an empty heart would be the heavier for daring to rise again, a plummet in the airy ectoplasm of his risen chest, all the heavier for existing without at least the avocation of animating the flesh, but it was too late now not to die, and so he did.”

You can almost feel Wells asking, “Do gods still walk the earth? In what form? And do we believe those who say they are close to god?–because we never really know what is meant by god. Are we worthy of a god?” These questions are intriguing inquiries into the world of what isn’t readily available for us to accept. Stories are the only way we can make that connection to a spiritual realm — we can’t see or touch or hear or smell it — and Wells use of a woman-god who’s learning what it means to be a god (even to one person) and comparing her to a woman who wants to be a god, is an ingenious vehicle for exploration.

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

Beautiful Ape Girl Baby book blog tour

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Beautiful Ape Girl Baby book blog tour

BAGB Tour Banner (Correct Dates)

I’m so excited about the forthcoming book blog tour for author Heather Fowler! Heather is celebrating the forthcoming release of her first novel, Beautiful Ape Girl Baby. Forward Reviews describes the book beautifully:

Irreverent, unconventional, and hyperreal, Beautiful Ape Girl Baby tracks an ape born to wealthy parents. Heather Fowler’s dark, humorous novel is both the story of a psychological experiment gone wrong and an aching portrayal of a seventeen-year-old in search of love.

Born with the looks and violence of a primate, Beautiful is raised on a compound that includes friends who are paid to praise her, designer clothes, and a mother and father who shield her with elaborate lies. No one dares risk her displeasure, so when she escapes on a road trip to meet her idol—radio host of the Strong as Animal Woman Show—it’s with the reckless confidence born of having never been held responsible for her impulsive behavior. Beautiful’s instincts cause mayhem, while her genuine belief in her own superiority colors her perspective.

For a whole week, some amazing book bloggers will be celebrating the release of Heather’s novel by inviting her into their webspace to talk about this funny, kick-ass novel filled with magical-realism. You can watch the book trailer, which has snippets of the film discussed at the third tour stop!

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Click the cover to pre-order now!

TOUR SCHEDULE

Monday, May 30th: Ever wonder how an author gets her book published? Heather visits Read Her Like An Open Book to talk about the long road to publishing Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, the novel’s origins, and when to follow your instincts in the book business.

Tuesday, May 31st: What exactly are authors thinking when they’re writing? At Lectito, you can read an excerpt of Beautiful Ape Girl Baby with footnotes from the author describing her frustrations, what she found funny, and some side tangents.

Wednesday, June 1st: Beautiful Ape Girl Baby develops into a different medium! At The Next Best Book Club blog, Heather describes what it was like watching a scene from her book be made into her short film!

Thursday, June 2nd: What do readers think of Beautiful Ape Girl Baby? Napoleon Split reviews the novel and interviews Heather Fowler.

Friday, June 3rd: TJ at My Book Strings wraps up the tour with a book review and interview. Interested in getting your hands on Beautiful Ape Girl Baby?


File May 14, 7 02 12 PMBio: Heather Fowler is a poet, fiction writer, essayist, librettist, and a novelist. She is the author of four story collections and a book of collaborative poetry written with Meg Tuite and Michelle Reale. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans. Fowler’s stories and poems have been published online and in print in the U.S., England, Australia, and India,with her work appearing in such venues as PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Surreal South, Feminist Studies, and more. She is Poetry Editor at Corium Magazine.

 

Links to Books:

The Time Garden

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The Time Garden

Title: The Time Garden: A Magical Journey and Coloring Book

Author and Illustrator: Ji-Hye Song (in English she goes by Daria Song)

Translated from Korean by: Min Jung-Jo

Published By: Watson-Guptill in 2014

the time garden

I’ve always loved to color. There, I said it. Crayons are my favorite tool by far, and markers my least. I’ve always found coloring with crayons in a coloring book comforting because the objective – finish coloring in the picture without making a mess of it – is achievable within 30 to 60 minutes, depending on how meticulous you are and what you leave uncolored. This is a time in the U.S. when people frequently cannot meet goals: we struggle to pay for school, so we cannot attend; we seek full-time jobs, but they don’t seem to exist; we want to lose weight, but the food industry is pretty twisted. Therefore, completing any goal feels like a miracle, and to me, that’s what coloring can do.

Adult coloring books, however, are far different from the kid versions. The images are tiny, complicated, and finishing one picture may take hours, days, or never be finished at all. This past Christmas, my husband surprised me by gifting me with this adult coloring book. At first, I couldn’t use it because there were no colored pencils in the stores. Since the grown-up coloring trend started, stores can’t seem to keep on their shelves the only tool that makes sense for such tiny details. I was skeptical, but once I got my colored pencils I gave it a go.

Like the pragmatist I am, I started on page one, planned on coloring the whole thing, then moving to the next page. I didn’t completely finish:

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I got close! The wallpaper pattern nearly killed me.

I really struggled with how many lines there were on the clock. I’ve had this rule about not having the same color touch in different parts of a coloring project, but with The Time Garden it was an impossible standard. I felt like a failure when the colors touched, and I felt worse that I didn’t finish the tedious fleur de lis on the wallpaper.

Instead of giving up, I chose one thing to color on all the pages: the little girl’s skin. I had my one color and I filled in her skin on every page, happy that I hadn’t promised myself I would color in all the crazy details:

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It was speedy to flip through and color the girl’s tiny body among all the details.

When I finished with the girl’s skin, I started to wonder if I was being lazy. The point of coloring is not to hurry, right? Well, I was never getting that sense of accomplishment I wanted, so yes, I was speeding! I then decided to add some color and have some fun with it:

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I had some awareness of what color a thing might be, like the brown wood of the chair, but played in other places, like making the cuckoo clock totally orange.

Part of what reinvigorated me was reading Lynda Barry’s book Syllabus in which she talks about the connection between moving our hands and how our brains work. She starts her students with crayon, and they are required to leave zero white background (which means they have to color very hard). I played around with coloring hard and soft, but I still avoided most of the detailed stuff:

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Do you like my mini typewriter? It’s a pencil sharpener I bought in 1996 to include in a school project. The assignment was to decide what we wanted to be when we grew up (a writer), research information (didn’t really have internet…) and create a diorama of our work space (desk + typewriter, of course).

I’ve colored in other bits and pieces here and there, but ever since I moved The Time Garden and my colored pencils off the kitchen table, I haven’t really revisited it. I can’t stand all the little tiny lines and details, which now makes me wonder if adult coloring books are increasing stress for those who sought a way to calm down and relax! I would not buy another one.

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Lucky for me, I also own crayons and a coloring book. Task complete!

What do you think about adult coloring books? Have you tried them?

Gag

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GagGag by Melissa Unger

Pages: 141

Publisher: Roundfire Books

Released: 2014

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

This is a short little book that tends to read with the ferocity of a well-developed post-modern short story (like “Cavemen in the Hedges” or “Stone Animals”). For that reason, I enjoyed it very much. Post-modern stories can often be crazy, whimsical, or downright odd because readers will just go with it for a certain amount of time. Novels can’t make readers suspend disbelief for too long, lest they become silly or ridiculous. Unger flows back and forth between making me disbelieve her characters and making me understand that unusual things happen to people. Just when the plot felt like it couldn’t keep up its strangeness, a character would do something normal, like crochet or go for a walk to reel me back in.

Part of the charm of Gag is that it’s funny. When Peter gets on the plane to head to Paris, he realizes that no one is sitting next to him. Until—

“…the inevitable happened: loud, fat, male and smelling slightly of refried beans.

‘Hiya! Mind if I squeeze in there, buddy?’

Well of course I do, you bovine monster, Peter thought to himself, averting his gaze, repulsed; but he got up silently and let the man through.”

There is quite a bit about being fat and consuming food in this book. At one point, Peter tries to force himself to eat an éclair while in Paris: “He impulsively grabbed it, and swung his hand up to his mouth. It was closed. He wiled his brain to send a message to his mouth, to open up, but the wires were somehow crossed, the message didn’t get through. He knocked and knocked at the door of his mouth, the éclair smashing repeatedly against his face, to no avail. He stopped. The éclair was now a pulp of brown goo in his fist, and on the edge of his vision when he looked down, he could see the blurred bits of slop on his nose and mouth.”

At times, though, it seemed like the story was sending a fat-hate message. One character can’t see herself as a woman when she is heavier. At one point, she is so thin that she looks “frail, possibly delicate, like a paper cut-out of herself, yet to [Peter] she looked extraordinarily beautiful.” I was troubled by the idea of a woman looking so different that she is not quite herself, yet this is when she is most gorgeous. The book repeats this message throughout.

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

This review was originally published at TNBBC

Of Marriageable Age

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51AACbxgrlL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Of Marriageable Age is a saga (546 pages) by Guyanese author Sharon Maas. The book was originally published by Harper Collins in 2000, but Maas has re-released it through Bookoutre. The description of this book alone intimidated me, and sagas are not my usual read. Of Marriageable Age follows three narratives (Savitri’s, Nataraj’s, and Sarojini’s) that start in three different decades (1920s, 1940s, 1960s) on three continents (India, British Guyana, England). Even the names and locations intimidated me, as I was worried about cultural and historical information and pronunciation being a hinderance, which caused me to put off reading Of Marriageable Age for a while.

This saga is actually quite easy to follow. The author makes sure to remind readers often enough of who’s who. If I wasn’t sure of a location, a simple Google search helped me out. In terms of remembering the decades, it’s not really that important. One character’s story, Savitri’s, is set in the 1920s, which is the outlier and easy to remember. By page 130 I was aware of how the three characters were related. But, the exciting part was seeing how it unfolded. There are also Tamil words used, like amma and appa, which were easy enough to figure out. Other words, such as lungisambar, and tinnai were not super clear, though I did get the idea: pants, food, sleeping spot. I was dismayed to find a glossary at the end of the book–dismayed because it was too late for me to use it. Why publishers never alert readers to the fact that there is a glossary, especially e-reader editions that don’t make it easy to flip through the whole book before reading, is beyond me.

The story mostly focuses on the Indian tradition of fathers being responsible for marrying off their daughters to suitable families. Oftentimes, little children are paired up, “officially” engaged when they are about 13, and then married at 14. Brides come from all over the place. Sarojini’s mother was “imported from India.” Her bridegroom, Deodat, who lives in British Guyana, is an “orthodox Brahmin” who “refused to take a wife born and bred in BG [British Guyana]. In such a woman traditions were diluted, culture was dying….He was appalled at the gradual disintegration of Hindu traditions, and the spineless capitulation of Indians to the secular spirit which ruled the colony.” While Of Marriageable Age hits on many important topics, whether or not girls can choose their husbands and whether or not Indians can marry non-Indians is the big theme.

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Madras in India, where most of Nataraj’s story takes place

Maas excels at yo-yoing the reader. At times, I wanted to burn this book for how Maas made me feel. I was faced with difficult moments that made me question what I would be okay with accepting. I hated Maas for making me do such personal questioning. Truly, it says a lot for an author to get the reader so involved and thinking beyond myself and my world. Then, when all seemed to be horrible, a breath of fresh air would rescue me and take the decision out of my hands, for which I was grateful. Some of the heavier topics included: rape, incest, arranged marriages, politics, racism, sexual liberation, and magical realism.

Yes, magical realism. Maas conflates idealized Indians with magical realism, which made me more willing to accept some of what might otherwise be sappy perfection. For instance, you’ll find this sort of thing often: “the dark, deep, all-knowing, all-seeing pools of his eyes.” Every time eyes were called “pools” I wanted to snicker. But, Maas gives some of her characters magical abilities, like this:

“Savitri once believed that everyone could talk to plants and birds and animals, that everyone knew their language. When she was very small, people had been alarmed by her silences….It was only when she discovered that humans didn’t understand silence that she began to use words, and then they came out in perfectly formed sentences, in two languages, and people were astonished. Only the other beings, the plants, birds, and animals, understood silence. People, she knew now, lived wrapped in thought-bodies, which was why they could not understand silence. The thought-bodies got in the way. They were like thick black clouds through which the purity of silence could not enter, and they kept people captive and dulled. Sometimes there were gaps in the thought-bodies.”

Georgetown, British Guyana, where most of Sarojini's story takes place.

Georgetown, British Guyana, where most of Sarojini’s story takes place.

And so, it feels a little more genuine to me that the characters with the ability to hear voices and animals, to heal or bring good fortune, should have deep “pool” eyes (they are magical, after all), and so I forgave the otherwise cliched descriptions.

Although I understood how the three character’s lives were linked, truly I did not fully know. Typically, Maas rotates the stories in a predictable way: Nataraj, Saroj, Savitri, each with their own chapter, and then repeat. Later in the book something tragic happens at the end of one of Savitri’s chapters, so I kept reading to get back to her story and find out what happened. Instead, Maas danced away from the foreboding plot, making the chapters play Nat and Saroj and Nat and Saroj and back and forth between THOSE two! I had to keep reading to know what happened! Maas expertly leaves readers dangling above the plot line they most want.

Whenever I thought I knew how the saga would end, even when I didn’t want it to end the way I predicted, I often found that I was wrong and there was more to know. Although the ending of the book is wrapped too neatly, is a bit too eager, it is Maas’s ability to make the reader feel right and then incorrect that kept me reading way past my bedtime. I highly recommend this Of Marriageable Age.

Kill Marguerite & Other Stories

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Megan Milks’s collection Kill Marguerite and Other Stories (Emergency Press, 2014) is both innovative and uncomfortable. The stories frequently use frameworks to shape the outcomes, such as the title story in which two adolescent girls battle it out for popularity and respect in a videogame, allowing them to use weapons, found objects (like jet packs and hearts), and lose lives when they are killed.  Other stories, like “Twins,” which comes in two parts (“Elizabeth’s Lament” and “Sweet Valley Twins #119: Abducted!”) use popular culture that many women today will admit they were raised on: Sweet Valley Twins, The Babysitter’s Club, and My Teacher is An Alien. The collection also uses song lyrics, Ancient Greek myth, violence, a whole lot of body fluids, and plays with concepts of gender.

The use of pop culture that is familiar to me was definitely my favorite aspect of the collection. Milks uses common conventions to make a connection to readers that also gives them the opportunity to reconsider what they thought they knew. In the title story, the girls live in a videogame world. Here, Milks is rather clever; the way players process new information in videogames and learn from it to make better choices after they die in a tough level challenges the notion that we can’t go back and have the perfect witty comment or knock the mean girl on her ass. Essentially, readers can relive their own brutal adolescence with the hope that a particular moment can be redone until it’s how we want it.

A problem with relying so heavily on popular culture is that it could leave a lot of readers confused. Had I not read hundreds of Sweet Valley Twins andBabysitter’s Club books, the references would have been lost on me. Personally, I’ve never read one of the My Teacher is an Alien books, but the title of that series kind of gives it away. There was also a story that uses lyrics from a song or band that I’ve never heard of. The relationships between the girls, though, are rather intricate but seemingly simplistic. Without knowing those relationships, some of Milks’s writing loses its power and sounds mean or trite, such as why one character is so popular and another is a loser. There is no room for expansion on these claims because they are well-known facts in the world of the Wakefield twins and the babysitters.

Another problem many readers may have is with Milks’s constant use of bodies being what we normally consider gross. Only in a few stories, like “Swamp Cycle” and “Slug,” did I have a deep-seated gross feeling (one that lasted for days). I expected “The Girl with the Expectorating Orifices” to be the worst offender, but instead I saw this story as the one that made the most sense. The girl with the expectorating orifices pukes when she’s drank too much, has snot running down her face when she’s crying, she menstruates, and gets diarrhea when she’s too anxious. This all sounds pretty normal to me, but we are so uncomfortable with our bodily functions that they are removed from public view. At first, the story seems gross, but as it goes on and the narrator shows how everyone has expectorating orifices, the story becomes almost comfortable and relatable.

Other stories, like “Slug,” explore bodies in a way I didn’t understand. “Slug” is the tale of a young woman named Patty who dates men and punishes them (I think) by shoving dildos in their assholes. She wears a strap on under her skirt and seems generally unsatisfied sexually. But when a six-foot slug climbs in through her window, suctions its way down her body, and then enters her vagina and nibbles on her cervix, Patty is sold. Eventually, she turns into a slug as well and, long story short, ends up eating off the other slug’s penis. Trying to figure out the symbolism of all of this is hard work—which doesn’t mean it’s not worth the work. At first, I thought that Patty wanted a penis and then became a penis (a slug), but then she…ate a penis? Or, the story could be a metaphor for a female to male transition (I think).

So, here is where I start to feel like both an idiot and a bad person. Because Milks’s characters are pretty gender fluid (pronouns switch, names typically reserved for one gender are used for another, roles disappear), I get that she’s writing about topics that are not discussed often in public, nor are we educated about such subjects, though I truly wish we were. I read as much as I can about gender so that I am educated, but I also recognize I am an outsider who may not fully understand. Since I don’t want to assume what Patty is doing in this story and end up looking like I don’t accept and respect gender differences, “Slug” left me feeling pretty awful.

On the other hand, “Earl and Ed” was a story that used metaphor to examine “unnatural” relationships that are shunned by the majority and how violence and sadness can result, and it was done in a way that allowed me to both learn and enjoy the story. Earl is a wasp (penetrating stinger—I’m making assumptions) that is referred to in feminine pronouns. Ed is a flower (just think Frida Kahlo) referred to in masculine pronouns. Ed can create life, whereas Earl is always leaving because she needs her freedom to fly (I kept thinking “and this bird you cannot change”). The roles of the characters change from what is “expected” and kept me reading and questioning what would happen to this bee-flower relationship.

Overall, Kill Marguerite and Other Stories stretched the boundaries of my understanding and comfort. I applaud Milks for writing challenging fiction that goes against the standard of easily-digestible reads that reiterate what readers already believe. Although a tough collection, readers who want to come away from a book feeling differently will enjoy this collection.

*Review originally published at The Next Best Book Club blog

People With Holes

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The characters in Heather Fowler’s newest collection of short fiction, People with Holes, released July 2012 from Pink Narcissus Press, are here to talk about Sex. That’s sex with a capital S, sex in excess, sex as an animalistic need, as a way to forget, move forward, and take control of others. Oh, and by characters I mean women. Larger than life, most of these women proudly strut in high heels, fishnet stockings, leopard-print jewelry, and over-the-top make-up. I kept imagining drag queens. Then again, didn’t “King of the Hill” boast an episode where large-footed feminist Peggy Hill is mistaken for a drag queen, which is defined in the show as a man who embodies a strong woman?

While women in Fowler’s first collection, Suspended Heart, were hurt by men and left to carry their sadness, People with Holes has a vengeful vibe, and women poison, decapitate, and belittle the genitals of those who dare hurt them. I was conflicted, though; some of these women grab men by the crotch, assuming no one could refuse them, and I started to think of them as just as bad as men who are condemned for similar behavior. The collection speaks to me in a time when sex and women are confused by political agendas and personal values. In “Sex with Dwarfs,” a re-imagined Snow White uses her friends because, essentially, they are like living vibrators: “His member, dwarf-like as it was, was too short to pierce her maidenhead and was just small enough to function like a tiny vibrating toy…”

Just when I feel like I might drown in the sexy juices of Fowler’s stories, she gives the reader a chance for air with more insight into the emotional aspects of these women. When a woman cannot get her boyfriend to say, “I love you,” she begins using plant metaphors for her feelings: “Blossfeldia have no tubercles, ribs, or spines, but are blessed with comparably large flowers, which exceed the diameter of the stems. That’s how I feel about you. Large flowers, most days. No spines. You taste like aloe to my soul.” Some of these characters desperately need an aloe for their sad hearts, proving the collection is about more than Sex and bravada. “Room Full of Scars” explores a woman who cannot find a partner because a room in her home is the literal scars of the past clinging to the walls so she doesn’t have to suffer their burden internally.

Fowler’s fabulist style does peek its head out in this collection, seen in “With the Silence of a Deer,” a story about a woman whose head becomes that of a deer and whose boyfriend “mounts” her to his satisfaction. “Three Views You Might Have Taken at a Pond’s Edge, Or Quack” turns the familiar princess and the frog tale on its head, capturing trickery at its funniest. Suffice to say, People with Holes is a “take no prisoners” sort of read.

*Review originally posted in JMWW