Tag Archives: memoir

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.

alpine-path

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.

lmm

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.

bozena-cover

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

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

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

bozena-maiden

“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.

Carli Lloyd #Memoir @CarliLloyd #WorldCup #Soccer #Olympics

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Carli Lloyd #Memoir @CarliLloyd #WorldCup #Soccer #Olympics

When Nobody was Watching: My Hard-Fought Journey to the Top of the Soccer World

by Carli Lloyd with Wayne Coffey

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 2016


Here is a first for Grab the Lapels: a sports book. I was inspired to check out a soccer player’s memoir for two reasons: Fiction Fan reviewed The Perfect Pass, a book about American football, and my adventures watching the Holy Cross College men’s and women’s soccer teams play this fall. I’ve been at HCC for a few years now, but the previous fall I was teaching 5 classes spread out over 2 colleges, so I hadn’t made it to a game before. Fall 2016, though, is a different story. I go to every home game and cheer on current and former students and their teammates. The men’s team is consists mostly of guys from countries where soccer really matters, so they’re pretty intense (and it’s fun to hear all the accents and foreign languages flying all over the place).

However, the women’s soccer team was a dreary thing to watch. I soon learned that the coach only had 9 women to play, when there’s supposed to be 11 on the field. Too many women were injured, so we were short on (wo)manpower. I felt discouraged, as if men’s sports may be better than women’s. After all, isn’t that what everyone says? Women’s sports are a token effort? No one watches them? We even use the adjective “women” (WNBA, for example), as if men’s sports are the default. Then my brain realized I was a jerk and called bullshit. Though the HCC women’s team was dispirited, I wasn’t going to let it affect my attitude anymore. I got Carli Lloyd’s memoir from the library to school my attitude.

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In the prologue, Lloyd shares with readers a few things we should know about her: she doesn’t do “fake,” she doesn’t try to increase her social media presence, and she doesn’t sign on for Dancing with the Stars and nearly naked photo shoots with Sports Illustrated. I appreciated this about Lloyd, as I’ve wondered why I see female athletes with make-up and shorter shorts, for example. It doesn’t jive. Lloyd may have a touch of make-up on in her cover image, but she doesn’t wear it on the field. The message is immediately positive for girls and women.

Early on, readers learn that Lloyd has family issues: her parents try to control her career, but she wants to be independent, which I felt was reasonable, especially as she hits her mid-twenties. Lloyd never misses an opportunity to thank her parents for the support and give them credit where it is due, nor does she fail to take the blame when her temper flares. As a result, I trust what’s in Lloyd’s book more because she’s not pointing fingers and deflecting blame.

Lloyd successfully convinced me that no matter her fame, she has doubts about herself. Knowing that a world-class athlete must keep pushing made her relatable and trustworthy in my eyes. She wonders:

How could I have screwed this up? How could this be happening? A year ago I became a gold medal hero and the Player of the Year and now U.S. Soccer doesn’t want to renew my contract. Can anybody tell me how it has gotten to this point?

Never complacent, Lloyd returns home in the off season to train, and even on Christmas day she’s out working with her trainer/mentor, demonstrating how much hard work goes into athletics. The message is work hard, because winners aren’t complacent, a message that translates to all activities.

Soccer: Women's World Cup-Final-Japan at United States

Jul 5, 2015; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; United States midfielder Carli Lloyd (10) reacts after scoring a goal against Japan in the first half of the final of the FIFA 2015 Women’s World Cup at BC Place Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

My favorite parts of the memoir include Hope Solo, a soccer player whose story arcs through the book. First, she’s benched most of the way though a game during which Solo is playing well. Other players on the team apparently lobbied to have her to sit out in exchange for a previously famous goalie who hasn’t played in months. The score of this 2007 World Cup match is United States 0, Brazil 4. Solo goes on television to claim that she would have saved the game and criticized those who wanted her out.

Basically, the woman who replaced her as goalie in the game was well-known years before, but things change quickly in sports. One minute you’re on top, the next, someone fitter has come along. For talking to the media, the entire team shuns Solo. Except Lloyd. As a result, the entire team shuns Solo AND Lloyd, but Carli Lloyd makes it clear that players need to to what’s right, not what’s dramatic. Knowing that Lloyd doesn’t get involved in drama and instead sticks to her principles was impressive and made her seem trustworthy and responsible.

I was wondering how female players may interact differently as a team than male players, and Lloyd addresses this concern:

In men’s sports, people criticize coaches and managers all the time, and sometimes call out teammates too, and it’s not that huge a deal. Things get hot and then it goes away. Often the guy speaking out is even lauded for having the courage to tell the truth. When it happens in women’s sports, though, it always seems to be viewed as a nasty, claws-out catfight. I hate that our World Cup has devolved into this, but I am not going to be part of the Hate Hope Campaign.

 

Here, Lloyd brings up an important issues. Guys who state their concerns are brave for doing so, but women who do the same thing are catty, bitchy, drama-whores, etc. I’m glad Lloyd outs women’s teams for unfortunately playing to stereotypes, which means maybe we can all move past our double standards.

I like Lloyd’s humility. She never assumes she’s the best player on the team nor that she can make goals on her own. Solo is given credit for “a world-class save” to help her team, for example. To make it clear how her teammates help her look good, Lloyd occasionally goes into soccer replay, during which I read 3-4 pages in some areas describing how the ball was passed and to whom. More insertions of personal moments would have made the book stronger. How do the other teammates interact with Lloyd? How often does she call her long-time boyfriend–and how do they make a long-distance relationship work? What does she do when she’s not training or practicing?

https://usatftw.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/usp_olympics__soccer-women_s_gold_medal_match-jpn_50758101.jpg?w=1000&h=667

Aug 9, 2012; London, United Kingdom; USA midfielder Carli Lloyd (left) and USA goalkeeper Hope Solo (right) celebrate with their gold medals after defeating Japan in the gold medal match during the London 2012 Olympic Games at Wembley Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

When Nobody was Watching is book meant for soccer fans. If you don’t know the terminology,  you can get lost. Here is an example: “It’s a 1-1 game late in the first half when Abby Wambach crosses the ball from the right, through the penalty area toward the left corner, where Stephanie Lopez runs the ball down. Stephanie nutmegs her defender and then toe-pokes a pass back to me.” I was happy to Google terms and learn more about the game, but not every reader will. I also did not look up every term, so I was in the dark a bit. I felt like if I wanted replays, I could YouTube them, but Lloyd’s determination made for an positive read about a female athlete. Continuing the fight for women and girls, Lloyd is part of the group that filed a law-suit against U.S. Soccer for wage discrimination.

http://www.espn.com/espnw/news-commentary/2015worldcup/article/13006977/how-getting-cut-helped-carli-lloyd-refocus-find-spot-us-women-national-team

Joe Scarnici/Getty Images Midfielder Carli Lloyd will enter the Women’s World Cup with 195 international caps and 63 career goals for the U.S. national team.

 

Interestingly, Abby Wambach came out with a memoir also published in September of 2016. Was it a race to see which teammate could tell the story of the amazing 2015 World Cup win? I’m not sure, but according to Goodreads, Wambach’s memoir is more personal and less description of soccer. I’ll read her book soon for comparison.

wambach

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.

The Girls of Usually #bookreview #readwomen #LGBT #Holocaust #20BooksofSummer

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The Girls of Usually #bookreview #readwomen #LGBT #Holocaust #20BooksofSummer

The Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz

published by Truman State University Press in 2015

Lori Horvitz’s first book is a memoir that chronicles her childhood as a New York City Jew, some of her travels in Europe and Asia, her creativity, and, mostly, her dating life. Horvitz dated men, then decided she was bisexual, then grappled with being a lesbian. As she mentioned in her Meet the Writer feature, Horvitz’s mother bought a photo frame from the store, but never removed the happy blond woman in the stock image. As a result, Horvitz wished to be (and later date) that blond woman. Horvitz suggests she stands out with her dark curly hair, Jewish heritage, and immigrant parents. As a kid, Horvitz loved to perform magic and hug her pet pocket poodle, the only living thing in her house she felt she could hug.

the girls of usually.jpg

I thought the book would proceed from childhood to college to adulthood, but I couldn’t make sense of the time structure in The Girls of Usually. I felt like someone had blindfolded me, relocated me, and when the blindfold was taken off, I had to re-learn where I was. Early, on page 35, Horvitz mentions a female college student she just met, who asks Horvitz if sex is good with her boyfriend. What boyfriend? I asked. He was never mentioned before. Soon, I realized this book is more like slice of life stories, one per chapter. The stories don’t always directly proceed chronologically. This drove me bonkers.

Another example: at the end of chapter 10 Horvitz booked a cheap trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway. In chapter 11, Horvitz starts with Rita, a woman she’s interviewing. Who is Rita?! I asked. Rita is a woman in her 40s. The chapter then goes back 20 years and tells the story of the Trans-Siberian Railway trip. Back when Horvitz rode the train, Rita stayed in the same compartment. The author explains that she ended up falling in love with Rita on this trip, the first time she realized she was into women. This timeline means that when we first meet Rita, Horvitz is in her 40s, too, not just out of college. Confusing! Why not end chapter 10 with saying she booked the trip, use chapter 11 to describe the trip, and have chapter 12 get into interviewing Rita 20 years later? Horvitz’s choice to tell things out of order is jolting and unnecessarily confusing.

At another point, Horvitz goes in circles. I bolded two parts to show you what I mean:

Upon my return to New York, Amy broke up with me and started dating a magician, a man she met while bartending at The Village Idiot, the tiny bar that used to be Downtown Beirut. Because of the poor economy and exorbitant real estate costs, just about every gallery in the East Village had closed down. Albert died, not from a gunshot wound but from AIDS. And Paula called to tell me about Barry, who just tested positive for AIDS. Two days later, she found out she was HIV negative. She remained friends with Barry and often brought him bee pollen and Spirulina, until ten years later when Barry was too sick to take care of himself, when he flew home to Indiana where his parents took care of him until he died in 2002, when his parents honored his request to be cremated but didn’t know what to do with the ashes. They sent them to Paula and, to this day, Paula’s not sure what to do with them. “They’re in a box in my closet,” she told me.

[paragraph break].

But now it’s 1989 and Amy just broke up with me.

Why are there so many people between the two mentions of Amy? If you’re wondering what role Albert, Paula, and Barry play here, or why it matters where Amy bartended, or that it used to be called a different name, I have no idea either.

In the last 1/3 of The Girls of Usually, Horvitz has a dog, a border collie/corgi mix, at her new house in North Carolina. In a later section, she’s getting the dog, which she learns is a border collie/corgi mix, because she moved into her house in North Carolina and can provide a pet a stable home. In an even later section, she describes her dog, a border collie/corgi mix, meeting a girlfriend’s dog for the first time. I started wondering if these essays were all published separately. If so, were they not edited for content? The reader is introduced to the dog three times! I’m providing several examples of the jumpiness of this book to show that it isn’t a one-time thing. This is the experience of almost the whole book.

Also in the last 1/3 of the book, the stories were all the same and with no indication if they are chronological. Here is the basic story of the author’s life: Horvitz chooses to enter the online dating world, Horvitz meets a new woman who is super crazy, Horvitz can tell right away the woman is super crazy (because she is obviously drunk, lying, evading, screaming, calling ex’s, etc.), Horvitz invests time and money in seeing this woman for long visits (sometimes two weeks) but ends up leaving early because crazy women are crazy. Horvitz explains her choices: she “suffers” the abuse of these women for far longer than she should because it gives her something to write about. Horvitz explains at least three times:

  • “But I was the writer, always in search of a good story, an interesting character. No matter the price. At least that’s what I told myself.”
  • “Maybe it was the writer in me who wanted to see this play out, to prove [my girlfriend] was nuts.”
  • Here Horvitz writes in second person: “You could have predicted all of this before you arrived; you knew the end of the story before it began, but you’re a writer, so you say, and perhaps you needed to get the details right.”

I found Horvitz’s excuse weak and mean-spirited in a way that helped the author avoid digging into her motivations. If she’s dating “crazy” women to get a story and be published, then she’s being exploitative. Perhaps Horvitz is justifying her dating choices in a way that doesn’t make her feel bad for not finding romantic love, but it was her choice to lead readers to believe she’s just in it for the story fodder.

At one point, she mentions she has a therapist. So, where is all the deep reflection one would do with a therapist? Why is it not in this book? The section with the therapist is written in second person (the only section!) as if it’s not really about Horvitz, so perhaps the work she’s doing in therapy isn’t quite ready to come out in book form. But that leaves the reader without much reason to read The Girls of Usually.

Horvitz’s childhood chapters (there are only a couple) were much more reflective. She gets a lot of negative feedback about what an LGBT person is when she’s a little kid. Because she’s shy, she’s called a “queer-o faggot” by the other third graders. Later, still as a girl, she sees on TV a woman argue against gay rights: “If gays are granted rights…next we’ll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with Saint Bernards, and to nail biters.” These memories demonstrate to the reader how impressionable children are, which is important to keep in mind when we choose our words.

There are a few gems in Horvitz’s chapters about her adult life. She works as a mentor-friend for men with HIV, and she is assigned to Nestor. Nestor, rather than tell his family that he is gay and has HIV, which is the reason he has so many needle tracks in his arms, claims he is addicted to heroin. This, he knows, will go over better with his family. Pete, an abrasive straight man, actually gets HIV from shooting heroin. In his dying days, he says hateful things about LGBT people, but tries to smooth it over by complimenting a few gay people. In these examples, Horvitz captures the complexity of being a lesbian during the AIDS epidemic, and her first-hand accounts are valuable.

There is also a big about being Jewish sprinkled throughout The Girls of Usually. There’s mention of her family members who’d survived the Holocaust, and the time she visits a death camp, which makes it all more real. At one point, Horvitz reads tons of books about the Holocaust while dating a German woman who isn’t totally sure Hitler was a bad man because her grandpa always said Hitler fixed the economy. Again, there ins’t much reflection on what these moments mean. What does a mention here and there mean to the reader? Not much.

Overall, I don’t recommend this book. It’s unnecessarily difficult to follow, lacks deep emotional digging, and gets so repetitive in the end when she’s describing how crazy her ex-girlfriends are, even though she knew they had emotional issues she could exploit. During the last several chapters, I really just wanted the book to conclude.

I want to thank Lori Horvitz for sending me a copy of The Girls of Usually in exchange for a honest review.

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#20BooksofSummer

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

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

Meet the Writer: Lori Horvitz #writerslife #interview

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Meet the Writer: Lori Horvitz #writerslife #interview
Lori Horvitz

Lori & Belly

I want to thank Lori for stopping by Grab the Lapels! You can find out more about her at her website. Be sure to friend Lori on Facebook!

What would you like readers to know about your new book, The Girls of Usually?

It’s a collection of interconnected memoir-essays, a coming of age of sorts, although a friend joked about how I never quite came of age. The essays were written over a span of ten years, maybe more. I didn’t set out to write a book, but I kept writing about subjects that obsessed me—identity, connection, and love. I grew up ashamed of being Jewish and idolizing the “shiksa in my living room,” a blonde all-American girl whose photo came in a double frame and was displayed for a decade next to a family photo from a bar mitzvah. This was my world. One reviewer said my writing is “wickedly funny,” yet some stories are wickedly sad. Perhaps funny and sad simultaneously. Among other subjects, I deal with death (my mother’s sudden death in my early twenties, and friends who’ve died of AIDS), getting stuck in a love triangle in the middle of a Communist package tour in dictator-run Romania, dating a German who didn’t think Hitler was so bad, and all while trying to figure out who I am—sexually, ethnically, culturally.

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

Perhaps readers may get frustrated with my narrator (me), who they could see as repeating similar destructive patterns. Then again, haven’t we all been guilty of making stupid choices? Bad choices make good stories.

How do your friends and family respond to your writing?

My local community in Asheville (colleagues, friends, the queer community, writers, students) has been amazingly supportive. I did a book launch a few weeks ago at a local café, and two weeks later, I read at Malaprop’s, a great indie bookstore in town. Both readings were standing room only. A number of people came out for both readings. I was humbled and heartened. I sent my father the first few chapters of the book and he read them aloud over the phone. He said, “This is very nice.” My brother who lives on the West Coast ordered a bunch of copies and was the first to post a picture of the book on Facebook.

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

I felt good about my first published piece in a literary journal—a poem about my poodle getting mauled to death at a parade by a Great Dane when I was seven. I was in my twenties when the poem was published. Every time I read it aloud at a reading, my audience cracked up.

How have you developed creatively since then?

Since the publication of that story, I went back to school for an MFA in creative writing (in poetry) at Brooklyn College, where I worked with Allen Ginsberg and Joan Larkin. Both encouraged me to open up, to not hide behind metaphors and abstractions. I then went on to a PhD program at SUNY Albany, where I studied with language poets and began playing with language, taking more risks with form. For my dissertation, I wrote a novel. I got hired to teach fiction but soon after started writing nonfiction. I sound like Madonna. Always reinventing myself. Or at least my writing.

What kinds of writing do you wish you did more of?

I love live theatre and fantasize about being a playwright. I’ve always been interested in dialogue and getting voices down. Maybe one day I’ll write a musical.

Why do you think your book would be a good choice for a book club pick?

Everyone could relate to being an outsider, to not fitting in. Much of the book is about my character trying to figure out where she belongs in the world, always feeling like she’s just on the edge, not quite part of the mainstream. Most of us stumble along in similar ways. Maybe a reader hasn’t dated a pathological liar, or felt ashamed of her ethnicity/religion, or maybe she’s never ventured out of the U.S., but aren’t we all living as outsiders in some ways? By the end of the book, my character embraces that edge. Celebrates it. Life is about trial and error. And maybe I’ve experienced more error than trial. I’m hoping the reader can come along for the ride and connect as a vulnerable being in the world. Perhaps even recognize the beauty in bad choices, as painful as they are. And to have the courage to laugh, keep moving, and tell all.

Meet the Writer: Armen D. Bacon #writerslife #interview

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Meet the Writer: Armen D. Bacon #writerslife #interview

I want to thank Armen for answering my questions! If you want to know more about Armen’s book Griefland, co-authored with Nancy Miller, you can read my review at JMWW. Also, you can follow Armen on Twitter @ArmenBacon

Why did you start writing?

I first began writing years ago while living in France during my senior year of college. I made the trip solo, desperate to discover my inner gypsy and a voice residing deep within. I wrote elaborate letters home describing my travel adventures. Later on in life, when my son died and the world turned upside down, words became my oxygen. I was now writing about a very different kind of journey. Writing helped me sort through the chaos, sift through memories, and retrace my life’s story. During the darkest hours, putting words onto paper was living proof I was still breathing.

What kind of writing do you do?

Right now my genre of preference is creative non-fiction/memoir, although I’m dabbling with poetic prose and flash fiction, which I really enjoy. I use language to capture (or resuscitate) lost and often times forgotten moments. I’m passionate about passing stories down to my children and grandchildren. Stories save our lives. They are the invisible thread that binds each of us to the other.Armen Bacon

Could you talk a bit about your co-authored book Griefland and Sandy Hook? Is it true hundreds of copies were sent to the town?

An anonymous fan who had read and loved Griefland decided to donate several copies (hundreds of dollars worth) to the grief-stricken families of Sandy Hook. When our publisher (Globe Pequot Press, located coincidentally, in Connecticut) found out, they refused his money and donated the books. The donor still wanted to do something special, so he made a sizable donation to the “Books Heal Hearts” fund established by the Newtown Public Library. He later wrote me a letter saying, “I needed to do more than just send a teddy bear to help soothe the grief.” His words still resonate. On a personal note, watching our book sprout wings and travel cross country to help others was something I’ll never forget.

My Name is Armen

What would you like readers to know about your new book, My Name is Armen?

While Griefland was written from a place of profound sadness, my new book covers all aspects of the human condition. I’m an op ed columnist, so the book contains a decade’s worth of favorite essays and published columns. Oh, by the way, the title is reminiscent of My Name is Aram, written by William Saroyan, one of my favorite authors, who was also Armenian and from Fresno. Reading his stories as a child made me feel comfortable in my own skin. His famous words, “In the time of your life, live…” are an overarching theme of my book. One of my favorite chapters is titled, “I dare you to live your life,” and offers sacred advice given to me by an eighty-something year-old woman I met in Spain.

Many times writers find a creative niche and community. What do you think is yours?

We’re living in a time when everything and everyone is on speed-dial. I write about life’s precious moments, the ones that deserve to be savored and celebrated. My audience is anyone wanting to press the pause button and explore outside the margins of the glossy 5 x 7’s where everyone is posed, all pretty and smiling. Life is beautiful, but it’s also messy and complicated. My stories share more than “just the shiny parts.”

Because my readers know I’ve been to hell and back, they know I’m a survivor. When I decided to write Griefland and ultimately shake hands with grief, the end result was that I think I became more human. If you’re going to be a good writer and connect with readers, you have to be vulnerable and willing to stand naked with all the flaws and imperfections exposed. Doing this is liberating – not only for me, but also for readers.  Let’s face it, not every story has a happy ending.

Do you think either of your books would be a good choice for a book club pick? Why/why not?

Griefland has been read by several clubs because the topic is extremely relevant in these times. We’re living in an era of loss – people are losing aging parents, their youth, friends, colleagues. Jobs and homes. Breasts. Some, like us, have lost children. The book gets people talking about a topic that remains rather taboo in our culture.  And the reality is, no one is immune. Loss is a very real part of life.

With My Name if Armen, book clubs will experience a roller coaster of emotions and life experiences. My hope with this book was that its words would leap off the page and make a direct B-line for the soul. The book came out in early November and is already in its second printing, so something tells me it’s touching a sweet spot in the hearts of readers.  So my answer is “both!”Griefland_cover1

The Diverse Books Tag #diversebookbloggers

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The Diverse Books Tag #diversebookbloggers

Naz over at Read Diverse Books has challenged everyone to read more diversely. If you have read a book that fits into the category, share it! If you haven’t, go find a book that fits into the category with the goal of reading it. Here we go:

The-DiverseBooks-Tag

Find a Book Starring a Lesbian Character:

I’ve got this one in spades. Books with lesbians come to me easily — or perhaps I seek them out? — but mostly, I look for excellent stories, and I never shy away from those stories if the protagonist is a lesbian. In fact, in some instances, the leading lady being a lesbian is what drew me in!

Checking out the following:

Find a Book with a Muslim Protagonist:

Okay, my reading is not as great in this area. There is one book that I have read probably half a dozen times and taught each semester for several years now: The Autobiography of Malcolm X with Alex Haley. This book surprises my students because Malcolm is a Muslim minister for the Nation of Islam, which is a different branch of Islam than what you would encounter in the Middle East. After Malcolm did his pilgrimage to Mecca, he disavowed the N.O.I. and went Orthodox.

Looking at Goodreads, I would like to check out Ms. Marvel, a new comic book series. I also want to read Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah, which I saw in Barnes & Noble.

Find a Book Set in Latin America:

This is another category with which I have more experience. I’ve also seen Junot Diaz twice; the dude has stood two feet away from me (he likes to wander auditoriums when he talks). And my god, does he swear a lot (I love it). The last time I saw him, he asked where the Latino/as in the audience were. Then he asked where his Africans were. Very few people raised their hands, and he said that wasn’t his fault, but the college’s (we were at the University of Notre Dame). Here is my list:

  • Ayiti by Roxane Gay (Haiti)
  • Unaccompanied Minors by Alden Jones (Costa Rica)
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Dominican Republic)
  • Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth (Nicaragua)
  • Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros (Mexico)
  • Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)

I have a number of books I’ve read by Latino/a authors who live in the U.S., such as Lolita Hernandez, Salvador Plascencia, and Desiree Zamorano. I’d like to read The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara (Mexico).

Find a Book About a Person with a Disability:

This is a tough one because I feel awkward reading a book about a person with a disability written by someone without a disability. I’ve noticed that most of the books with people who have disabilities I encounter are on the mental health spectrum as opposed to a physical disability, so I’ll keep my eyes open for more books with people who have disabilities.

  • Half Life by Shelly Jackson (conjoined twins)
  • American Genius by Lynn Tillman (mental illness)
  • Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon (self-harm, anxiety)
  • Sweethearts by Melanie Rae Thon (deaf)
  • Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulemia by Marya Hornbacher (mental illness)
  • Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher (mental illness)
  • Annie’s Ghost by Steven Luxenberg (disabled legs and mental illness)
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (mentally disabled)
  • Lily of the Valley: Chateau of Flowers by Margaret Rome (blind)

Find a Science Fiction or Fantasy Book with a POC Protagonist:

I don’t read a ton of sci-fi or fantasy, but when I do, it tends to have POC in it. Perhaps because I find that when an author who is a POC writes sci-fi or fantasy, he or she includes deeper messages of race and gender than a white writer may.

  • Soul Resin by Charles W. Cannon
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Bald New World by Peter Tieryas
  • The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

I have Kindred by Octavia Butler on my list. She wrote so many sci-fi/fantasy novels with POC; she is ultra prolific.

Find a Book Set In or About An African Country:

Find a Book Written by an Indigenous/Native Author:

  • Ledfeather by Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet)
  • Demon Theory by Stephen Graham Jones
  • It Came From Del Rio by Stephen Graham Jones
  • The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones
  • After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones
  • The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie (grew up on Spokane reservation, but has heritage with several tribes)

Okay, so I’ve read a lot of Stephen Graham Jones. Technically, he would fit really well into sci-fi and fantasy starring a POC because he writes lots of mind-bending horror with time warps and craziness. I’ve read essays by Leslie Marmon Silko and Joy Harjo, and I would like to read Louise Erdrich soon. I’d also like to read Ojibwe authors, as I grew up on the Saginaw Chippewa reservation.

Find a Book Set in South Asia:

  • Palestine by Joe Sacco (Israel-ish, depending on your viewpoint regarding what to call this territory)
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Iran)
  • Love in a Dead Language by Lee A. Siegel (India)
  • The Question of Bruno by Aleksander Hemon (Sarajevo)
  • Currency by Zoe Zolbrod (Thailand)
  • The Girl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret (Isreal)
  • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (India) I incorrectly remembered which book this was! It is mostly set in the United States and focuses on Indian-American families. My mistake 🙂
  • Of Marriageable Age by Sharon Maas (India, British Guyana)
  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (India)
  • Dragonfish by Vu Tran (Vietnam) This book is half set in Vietnam and half in Las Vegas.

Find a Book with a Biracial Protagonist:

  • Sweethearts by Melanie Rae Thon (Crow/white)
  • The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss (almost every person in the book is biracial)
  • Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evens (black/white)
  • Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen (black/white)

Find a Book About a Transgender Character or that is about Transgender Issues:

  • Cloud 9 by Carol Churchill
  • Woman’s World by Graham Rawle
  • Drawing Blood by Poppy Z. Brite

I also have Janet Mock’s memoir on my to-read list, of course!

The-DiverseBooks-Tag

Harley & Me #bookreview #readwomen #harleydavidson #20BooksofSummer

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Harley & Me #bookreview #readwomen #harleydavidson #20BooksofSummer

Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy

published by Counterpoint Press, May 2016

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Harley and Me is a memoir about what it means to take risks. For Murphy, her risk-taking most noticeably began when she was a skateboarder in California. But a teen pregnancy followed by her baby’s adoption led Murphy into the arms of safety: marriage at 22 to a stable guy, 3 kids, house, university job, and what she calls a blanket of estrogen that kept her from doing anything too risky. But at 48 and contemplating divorce, Bernadette Murphy feels something unusual — something she wouldn’t image over the past 25 years of wife and mother — she wants to be fully alive, fully present, and not risk averse. Furthermore, she doesn’t want to do a “song and dance” to please men anymore.

I’ve been a passenger on motorcycles for 26 years. My parents have been riding my whole life. Before that, it was my paternal grandparents. You could say it’s a family thing! Go through my thousands of family photos and you’ll find dozens of motorcycle pictures from through the years, including strangers’ motorcycles (hey, if a bike looks good, you never want to forget it).

Far left: me leaning on my brother’s motorcycle circa 2004. Going to the right is my dad, brother, and granny on their newest rides circa 2016.

But Harley and Me is about a middle-aged woman getting a motorcycle, which isn’t terribly common — unless you’re my mom. Which is why I felt a great desire to read Murphy’s book when it popped up in my Twitter feed. I wanted to see how other women with nearly grown children felt about driving a “death machine,” as some paranoid people call them (as if we don’t die in cars).

Left: my sweet ma as passenger in the early 80s. Right: 4 motorcycles and 120,000+ miles later, my sweet ma today with her own award-winning motorcycle. I love the skeleton hands on the mirror!

Murphy really captures what it means to start riding a motorcycle. Her good friend Rebecca inherited a Harley dealership, which is how Murphy is lured into signing up for her motorcycle license. First, she must attend a week-long class. While most people have down the “look” of a biker (and I see this all the time — people who don’t own a motorcycle but do own an entire closet of leather and Harley-Davidson T-shirts), Murphy feels she does not. She shows up to class:

In baggy men’s Levi 501s, a stained T-shirt, gardening gloves, and hiking boots. I look more like a hired hand than a biker chick. At this moment, I’d love a pair of killer motorcycle boots.

Because I get what Murphy is saying about “the look,” I really enjoyed her descriptions and comparisons. Even when she dumps her bike the first time, she makes the scene come off the page:

I sit on the curb in front of the gas station’s convenience store. My hands shake. My mouth is dry. It feels as if all my blood has been exchanged for electricity. I am awash in shame. I don’t look like the badass biker chick I’m trying to become, but some kind of poseur who can’t control this machine, a pathetic girl trying to do something beyond her ability.

Here, I really felt for Murphy. Though pretty much everyone dumps their bike at one time or another, a woman doing so with witnesses serves as evidence that motorcycles are just “too much” for women. It’s scary to face those people shaking their heads, Murphy notes, wondering if she’s gone crazy and this is her mid-life crisis. A year later, she is divorced,and people wonder if the “crisis” caused Murphy to give up stability and comfort. The ability to take a chance, change her life, and try something brave had me nearly in tears for how safe and squishy I want to make my own life — truthfully, I felt like a wuss.

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Harley and Me provides plenty of commentary on feminism. Sometimes a whole book on feminism can be great, but when it’s woven into a personal narrative, the author can accomplish connections that might otherwise seemed forced. For instance, Murphy shares her love of Fonzie. Later, when talking to a male biker, he says he wishes he were the Fonz, and Murphy says she wanted to date the Fonz. But as the conversation changes direction, Murphy boldly confesses:

Actually, I take that back….I wanted to be Fonzie, too.

If Fonzie is cool, powerful, and slick, is he only a role model for men? Murphy proves no, and again I related to her inner complications about assigned gender roles. I often wished I had the power and energy and chaos that the men in my favorite rock bands, like the guys in Metallica, or Chris Cornell, or Tom Morello. Don’t we all wish to be seen and in control? For women, being seen is harder than men might think. We’re either invisible or on display like a prize cow.

Murphy breaks down stereotypes of women on bikes and how she doesn’t fit:

Just to get on a bike is to break prescribed gender roles even in this postfeminist age. By taking it one step further, refusing to be constricted by the typecast of the sexy biker mama or the hard-ass butch rider, is to accept one’s true sense of self. I like my motorcycle simply because I like to ride.

Her examination of stereotypes comes up again and again when she notes that her friend drives a pink motorcycle with Barbies attached to the sides, so everyone pays attention to her (and wants pictures). At biker events, women are almost always on the back (known as the “bitch seat” in biker culture) and are sure to have lots of skin showing, riding along in ridiculous spiked heels. After her divorce and bonding experience with her motorcycle, Murphy realizes she has a strong libido, and that to embrace it is not promiscuous or doing men a “favor,” but has to do with sex in biker culture.

There is a lot of useful information in Harley and Me, but this isn’t a book about discovering the love of riding. It’s about risk-taking. Murphy shares many (perhaps too many) articles and studies on the effects of taking risks on brain chemistry, how we strive our whole lives to create safety, but when safety is assured, our brains grown sluggish. We lack the brain chemistry that comes from risks, like learning a new language, taking up an instrument, sky diving, competing in a sport, getting a new job, dating, changing homes — or riding a motorcycle. I felt less wuss-like when I learned that “risk” isn’t defined by the activities from the X-Games; it’s what we personally consider risky.

I appreciated all the research Murphy did, but it really slowed down the memoir. Chapter 8 was terribly slow when she explained risk taking in a scientific sense, because she keeps explaining it. Basically, once we do something that makes us anxious because we took a risk, we get a hit of feel-good chemicals and want to do it again. This concept is restated at least a dozen times over the next 150 pages.

Part of reinforcing the theory that taking risks has made Murphy a dopamine fiend comes from personal evidence. There are many scenes in the 3rd part of the book: Murphy living in French Polynesia for three months, Murphy running a marathon there, scuba diving in the ocean, paddle boating, rock climbing, ice climbing. Each example comes with its own descriptions of how afraid she was, how she knows she can conquer fear, and how taking the risk will make her take new risks because she received those feel-good chemicals. Science was scattered throughout this section, too, and the book got so repetitive that I was forgetting the focus was Murphy’s relationship with her Harley-Davidson. I felt impatient and spacey.

The book ends with Murphy reiterating all the risks she’d experienced (though I’d just read them!) and taking a blood test to see if riding a motorcycle increases oxytocin. It was more science to prove that riding a motorcycle changed her life because it changed her chemistry, but I didn’t need it. I wanted more personal insights, more intense description that came earlier in the book, both when she described her current life and childhood. Including the numerous typos I spotted, I felt a stronger editor could have culled the best parts and made this into an educational, inspiring, feminist memoir.

I want to thank Bernadette Murphy and her publicist at Counterpoint Press for sending me a reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review. To learn more about Murphy’s writing, please check out her Meet the Writer feature!

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#20BooksofSummer

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

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

 

Meet the Writer: Bernadette Murphy #interview #writerslife #harleydavidson

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Meet the Writer: Bernadette Murphy #interview #writerslife #harleydavidson

I want to thank Bernadette Murphy for answering my questions! Her bio and contact links are at the bottom of the page.

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Grab the Lapels: What is your writing process like?

Bernadette Murphy: I adore writing something new when it’s fresh and I have some idea of what I’m doing. That experience, unfortunately, doesn’t happen all that often. With new material, I’m often casting about, trying to figure out what I’m writing, what I’m trying to say. I hate that not-knowing stage, but I also know it’s necessary and doesn’t last forever – usually.

Revising, on the other hand, is more painless and I find it super creative. I love shaping a narrative, cutting it up into little bits and then reconstituting the whole once I’ve figured out what the main thing is I’m shooting for. I’ll often write a longish first draft, one that meanders and doesn’t quite know what it’s trying to be. But the revision stage, once I’ve done some thinking and non-thinking about “what is this about?” can be fun and magical. I love seeing how the shape starts to reveal itself, how, as I cut and hone and cut some more, the core idea begins to shimmer a bit and stand out from the background. So while I thrive on the energy that comes with starting something new and its freshness, I think I favor revising.

One of my early mentors, Leonard Chang (a novelist and now a writer for television) once told me this analogy: Other artists start out with some kind of media: paints and a canvas, a camera and an image, a piece of wood to be carved. Writers start out with nothing beyond the alphabet, little glyphs on a page. In writing the first draft, we create our medium. By the time we’re done with the first draft, about all we have is a big, wet pile of clay. The revision stage is where we really practice our art. That’s when make that clay into what we envision it as.

GTL: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

BM: I always wrote as a kid to make sense of life and to have someone to talk to. I grew up in a household of seven people with one bathroom. The only way to get privacy was to lock myself into the bathroom, climb in the tub and while soaking, fill pages of my Hang-Ten notebook. I never dreamed that I could pursue a career as a writer. It was just something I did.

In community college, I was double majoring in dance and marine biology (like those two go together!), obviously unsure what I was doing about a potential career. I was failing Chemistry and totally lost when the English teacher said, “Have you ever thought about being a writer?”

And the answer was “no.” I had never thought about it. It was like thinking I could be an astronaut or President of the United States. But once he planted that seed, my eyes started to open. At first, I studied journalism and started my career writing things other people wanted me to: journalism, public relations copy, ad copy. But in my 30s, I could finally identify the stories I wanted to tell, stories of the human condition and our struggles with it. I was finally ready to do so.

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GTL: Did you learn anything from writing Harley and Me?

BM: Oh my! Yes! I learned that a woman’s hormones basically trick her into being a master nurturer during the childbearing years but that, as we age, we become more like we were when we were younger, around age 11. I was much more gutsy and fearless when I was a kid, but while raising children, I became meek and skittish. It was a relief to realize that my ‘coming out’ as a risk taker was totally normal.

I also learned that I’m tougher and more resilient than I thought I was. Over the course of writing that book, I rode my motorcycle across the country and back, pursued a divorce after a 25-year marriage, lived on my own for the first time in my life, dated for the first time in a quarter of a century, moved to Mo’orea in French Polynesia for a while, and learned to ice climb, among other crazy things. I was shocked and amazed at what I did. Neighbors, my kids, and friends: everyone was shocked. But in a good way. I found out I’m braver than I would have guessed.

And that’s part of why I wrote this book. I think this can be the story for many people, but that unless they try something that feels risky to them – taking a drawing class, starting a business, training to run a 10K – they may never know. My wish is that Harley and Me will encourage people to try something new and discover that untapped reservoir of courage that’s waiting inside them.

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

BM: I was totally lost about what I wanted to be when I grew up, other than a dancing marine biologist! At one point, I thought I wanted to be a nurse, but that was because of cultural programming. Neither of my parents had attended college; they were emigrants from Ireland. I thought the only real choices were teacher or nurse.

The marine biology background shows up in Harley and Me in the chapter “Evolve or Die,” in which I wrote about the researchers on Mo’orea studying coral reef ecology and what they taught me about my need to “re-wild” myself. Also, I’ve been writing a couple of nature/biology pieces recently for Palm Springs Life Magazine lately that uses my biology background. My dance background led to my interest in all things fitness related, and shows up in Harley and Me when I run a half marathon in French Polynesia.

It’s interesting, though. Until you asked this question, I had no idea that those interests were in this book. Thank you for that.

GTL: You’re welcome! Does your writing include any research?

BM: All my books involve research, but this one, by far, included the most. I tapped into neuroscience, endocrinology, psychology, the study of happiness – everything I could find that would lend scientific backing to what I was exploring. I even had my blood taken before and after riding a motorcycle to see how my levels of testosterone, cortisol, and oxytocin changed as the result of riding. The basic question the book asks is twofold: 1) What in the world happened to me, that I suddenly wanted to do risky things when my kids were flying the coop? and, 2) Were these risky things good for me or harmful? I needed science and lots of experts to help me answer these questions in a legit way.

All the books I’ve written have included research because I like to use my experience not so much as the focal point of the story but as the lens to look at a larger question. For example, in Zen and the Art of Knitting, I looked into the creative, spiritual, and meditative qualities of knitting to help me understand my own response to it. I turn to science to help me comprehend what my story alone doesn’t fully reveal and to make my experience more universal.

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GTL: Finally, why do you think Harley and Me might be a good pick for a book club?

BM: We all have stories of wanting to do things that scare us and what we have to do to get ourselves over that hump – whether we’re talking skydiving, starting to date again after the end of a long-term relationship, or embracing our own creativity that may have gone dormant.

What’s fun about Harley and Me in a book club setting is that, while I found out I was stronger than I thought I was by learning to ride a motorcycle, other people have similar stories in totally different ways. We share these stories and by the end of the book club meeting, everyone has come up with a list of new things they want to try, coupled with a sense of community support as they make plans to do so. Plus, they now have the scientific backing that helps them see how and why risk makes us healthier neurologically, and the ways it enhances our neuroplasticity. (We also have fun saying big words like that, as if we know what we’re talking about.)

GTL: Thanks so much for visiting Grab the Lapels to share with readers who you are! Read my review of Murphy’s newest book, Harley and Me, HERE.


thumb_DSC04715_1024Bernadette Murphy served for six years as a weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times, and has published three books of creative nonfiction: The Tao Gals’ Guide to Real Estate (with Michelle Huneven); The Knitter’s Gift; and the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting. Other essays and short stories have been in featured in anthologies, including: Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting, edited by Ann Hood; Wild with Child: Adventures of Families in the Great Outdoors, edited by Jennifer Bove and Mark Jenkins; My Little Red Book, edited by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff; Our Working Lives: Short Stories of People and Work, edited by Larry Smith and Bonnie Jo Campbell, and others. She currently serves as core faculty in creative nonfiction MFA program at Antioch University Lost Angeles.