Tag Archives: mothers

Fat Girl Dances With Rocks #LGBT #ownvoices @SusanStinson

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Fat Girl Dances With Rocks #LGBT #ownvoices @SusanStinson

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


You may remember that Susan Stinson stopped by Grab the Lapels recently for a Meet the Writer feature. Many of you asked if I would be reading Fat Girl Dances with Rocks soon. I imagine the title and the cover both draw readers in! In case you can’t see it online, the cover is beautiful and tasteful. The girl is both naked and yet covered (no nipples on her breasts or genitals). The artist, Jody Kim, used colored pencils to give the image a soft, warm, yet nuanced look by layering the colors.

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Fat Girl Dances with Rocks (Spinster Ink, 1994) is narrated in first person by Char, a 17-year-old girl who loves practicing dance moves and riding for hours in her Pinto with best friend Felice. Set in the 1970s, the book makes reference to specific disco songs from the decade. Though they’ve been friends for a good while, Felice has just now agreed to stay the night at Char’s for the first time, and what starts innocently enough with Char asking Felice to fix her hair somehow, maybe braid it, ends with a a kiss. Felice doesn’t want to talk about it.

Char claims she likes the idea of a boyfriend and being touched. She’s had boyfriends, too. Kissing Felice seems more intimate . . . perhaps not because Felice is a girl, but because they’ve been physically close through their friendship. Thus, Char’s sexuality develops naturally. I’ve watched movies and read fiction with characters who come out, and it’s always a huge surprise to the character. My friends in high school, lesbian, bi, and straight, all came to sex at different ages. While some were shy holding hands, others had physical relationships regularly. It all depends on the person’s comfort level. Char’s feelings reflect what I remember as true of teenagers forming relationships and realizing that they want physical closeness. It’s a tricky balance, and many bloggers lament the problematic “insta-love.” You won’t find that in Fat Girl Dances with Rocks.

Susan Stinson’s novel does a lot of work in the first several pages. We get the kiss, the tension between Felice and her mother, and Char’s problematic family. The father seems gruff, the brother a bit of a bully, and the mother asks Char every morning, “Did you lose weight?” Both mother and daughter are on diets, while father and brother eat seconds because they are average. Stinson sets up potential problems to be faced head on later in the novel.

After deciding she can’t live with her mom anymore, Felice leaves for the summer. One might guess she’s running away from her feelings for Char, which you may find predictable. Felice is a unique teen, though. She loves geology and identifies and collects rocks, which she mails to Char throughout the summer. Char, with nothing else to do, must get a job, so she lands at an assisted living community. Stinson showcases a variety of rabble-rousing, demanding people with different physical disabilities. A few characters are in wheelchairs, and one can’t fully use her hands.

Though I could easily tell the characters in the home apart (usually people with physical disabilities get clumped together in fiction, as if they are the same), their disabilities were slowly revealed. While I pictured Peg, the leader of a food riot in the cafeteria, one way, later on I would learn more about her the way her body was shaped and functioned differently, and I would have to rearrange her appearance in my head. But Peg helps Char grow up a bit by teaching Char how to treat people, how to think about people, just by interacting with her. Char must figure it all out.

And that’s what I loved about Stinson’s book. Nothing is handed to Char, nothing is obvious, or a given, when it comes to Char. Even her thoughts on her body are complex. Did you forget she is fat? It’s easy to, as it is not the obsession of her life. Sure, bodies are problematic at times, regardless of size, but they bring great joy, too. Since I’ve listed so many horrible things characters say about their fat bodies in previous reviews, below are some positives.

Even when Char is told to get her hair “under control,” she admits to readers, “I love my hair. It was one of my secret vanities. Sometimes at night I would spread it out on my pillow.” Hair is easy, though. Most people can have good hair. What about fat bodies? When she goes swimming with her mother for some good exercise (yes, fat people like to exercise), she watches her fat mother:

. . . once I saw her beauty, it seemed ordinary and familiar. Mom seemed to wake up in the water. She was so loose and white, buoyed up by her fat. She could rest at the surface and make little dips with her hands and feet.

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Char also admires an old photo of her mother, “. . . young, on a horse, with those family breasts pushing out fringe on a fancy cowgirl shirt, and the family thighs spreading wide and strong against the shining brown saddle.” Now that, reader, is an important moment. Do you ever think of fat as an inheritance? Or are you more about the family curse of wobbly arms and big butts? Did you know that features of your body, even the fat ones, connect you undeniably to your blood kin, and that when you insult yourself, you insult them, too? I was so pleased to see Char admire her mother’s body.

Granted, Char’s mother weighs herself daily and asks Char if she’s lost weight. Something toxic is trying to be passed in those familial relationships, too. And it takes it’s toll. We all know our mothers doing a chicken dinner on their own bodies affects how we feel about ours. Are you a mother? Do you still pick at your body nonetheless? Char stands in the shower, holding her excess belly and thinking that it shouldn’t even exist. What an awful thought, but it reflects the reality of her environment.

Fortunately, Char’s not fully warped by diet culture. Home alone and missing Felice, she puts on a record and dances around naked. Pretty soon, she’s hiding the rocks Felice has mailed her in the folders of her skin (under her breasts, in her sides, under her belly). Is it really just dancing, or more of a way to get Felice closer to her body? The moment is both elegant and absurd, and that’s why I love it. She also pats her thighs as she lays in bed, thinking of them as good, faithful dogs.

Fat Girl Dances with Rocks is suitable for all ages, though it strikes me as a coming-of-age young adult novel. The characters are unique yet realistic, and avoid all the pitfalls — “insta-love,” love triangle, nerdy chic, popular kids vs. your obvious choice to side with — that usually make me avoid stories about teenagers.

Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

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Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

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

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

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

Zora maid

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sula #BlackHistoryMonth

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Sula #BlackHistoryMonth

I have two goals for 2017: read books with positive representations of fat women, and read books I already own written by black women. So far, so good.

Today’s Review: Sula by Toni Morrison

Published in 1973 by Plume, originally by Knopf


Sula focuses on a few individuals who live in Medallion, Ohio, a place commonly referred to as “the Bottom.” We begin by learning about how the Bottom came to be, how National Suicide Day started, then move to Nel, her mother, and grandmother. Then, we meet Sula, her mother, grandmother, and a gaggle of “strays” that live with them. Sula and Nel are girls inseparable until one day Nel gets married and thus Sula leaves. Ten years pass, and when Sula returns it’s with bad omens galore. Their friendship can’t stand up under betrayal, especially since the two are so different as people now.

Basically, that’s the general plot of Morrison’s book. If you’re read anything by Morrison, though, you know it’s not always the plot, but how it’s told that is magic. Toni Morrison writes black pain like few can. The trauma characters face is both severe and beautiful as a result. For instance, the Bottom is established through trickery. We learn:

A good white farmer promised freedom and a piece of bottom land to his slave if he would perform some very difficult chores. When the slave completed the work, he asked the farmer to keep his end of the bargain. Freedom was easy — the farmer had no objection to that. But he didn’t want to give up any land. So he told the slave that he was very sorry that he had to give him valley land. He had hoped to give him a piece of the Bottom. The slave blinked and said he thought valley land was the bottom land. The master said, “Oh, no! See those hills? That’s bottom land, rich and fertile.”

“But it’s high up in the hills,” said the slave.

“High up from us,” said the master, “but when God looks down, it’s the bottom. That’s why we call it so. It’s the bottom of heaven — best land there is.”

Well, if you know anything about agriculture, you know that you can’t tend land up in the hills. Seeds and top soil wash away, it tends to be rocky, and because people are up high they are unprotected from wind and cold. The result of such trickery is life-long suffering, but Morrison also describes the Bottom as a unique home, a place people return to.

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Then, one young man leaves the Bottom to fight in WWI in France, 1917. Shadrack is hospitalized for years, but doesn’t know it, and is finally dumped  out of the institution because they’re tired of his aggressive behavior (which he didn’t know he had — he remembers only a few days of those years). Eventually, Shadrack makes it back to the Bottom where he becomes the town “idiot” of sorts, exposing himself to women and girls and peeing in public. He’s a drunk, someone who shouts at white people (and gets away with it, we’re told). He invents National Suicide Day as a result of his PTSD: if everyone dedicates themselves to dying, they won’t have to be anxious about when death will come for them. Now, it death always comes January 3rd. The story of Shadrack is amusing, odd, and sets the tone of trauma for the book.

Morrison sets up a history for our two main characters, Sula and Nel, but sometimes it doesn’t quite seem needed. Nel’s mother was raised by her grandma because her mother is a prostitute. We never hear of Nel’s mother again, though her story takes up a whole chapter is this very slim book (174 pages).

The intended emphasis of the entire novel is Nel’s and Sula’s friendship. They’re so close as girls they’re like one person. And yet, other than a brief mention of Sula cutting off a piece of her finger to scare away white boys who bully them, the big event that’s meant to convince readers that these girls are inseparable is a day when Sula and Nel play along the river. A small boy called Chicken Little plays with them. Then, as Sula swings him around by his hands, Chicken Little slips out of her grip and flies into the river, never to surface. Why these girls don’t run for help or try to save him is surprising, and the only thing I can come up with is perhaps they would be beaten for accidentally throwing a boy into the river or getting their clothes dirty should they try to save him (this is time of whippings for everything). The girls never tell anyone that they know how Chicken Little died, even as they watch his family wail at his funeral.

Since the book is so short, it can’t do everything. But I really wanted more to suggest Nel and Sula were best friends. Near the end, we learn Nel and Sula used to go with the same boys and then compare their kissing styles and pick-up lines. Why couldn’t we see this when they were girls? Overall, I didn’t feel the closeness Morrison wanted me to.

A theme I can’t fail to mention is sex. Morrison writes about sex in a way I didn’t know sex could be. Not the act, per se, but people’s feelings and reasons for it. “Empty thighs” is a concern for abandoned women. Promiscuous single women can be a help to wives, if she treats the man well, because it means the man has desirability. Sexual positions suggest power. Morrison will certainly get you thinking about sex in a new way.

However, Sula seemed like a book about Eva, Sula’s grandmother. She seemed Paul Bunyan legendary. Eva was abandoned by her husband, left with three children, nearly starved and frozen. Her youngest baby is screaming and can’t poop, so she uses the last of her lard and extracts the blockage from his read end. This story is pivotal; Eva is scared into doing something different because the baby’s death was too imminent that day. She leaves her kids at the neighbors and disappears — for 18 months. When she returns, she has money, one leg, and sets up a prosperous house.

Stray folks live in Eva’s new home: a white drunk who barely speaks who has pretty blonde hair, whom Eva calls Tar Baby; “the Deweys,” three boys who are at different times abandoned at Eva’s house. None of them look the same, yet no one can tell them apart. They are all called Dewey. Eva’s house is in constant motion, as people have sex, catch fire, are set on fire, leap out of windows. Yes, I know this sounds amazing, but it all happens. There was so much to mine from Eva’s parts that the titular character and her friend seemed back burner.

Not only that, but Sula remains unexplored in places. She goes away to college and travels the U.S., but when she comes back to the Bottom she seems almost unchanged. She values her mind, but it’s not really as a result of academic pursuit. More so, Sula isn’t hive-minded. She isn’t constrained by marriage. Is this what college taught her? What are her interests other than satisfying her sexual needs? Early in the book, Sula is an audience to events, but when she comes home she has opinions about that childhood that seem to come out of nowhere. I wasn’t ready for them and didn’t see the bridge. Again, did college change the way Sula analyzed her childhood?

Overall, the writing is superb and the story has many interesting moments, but the focus on Sula and Nel takes away from much of the rich places Morrison could have gone.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl #BookReview

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13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

Published by Penguin, 2016

Procured from my local library


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


I first heard of Mona Awad’s book on NPR. Based on the title, I thought 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl would be 13 short stories. Instead, it’s a novel (sort of) told in 13 chapters (sort of). If I hadn’t read that Awad is a graduate of an MFA program, I could have guessed it. Coming out of an MFA program myself, I understand how difficult it is to workshop sections of a novel, so instead we all tend toward short stories. 13 Ways of Looking reads like 13 connected yet separate short stories.

The cover is interesting, as it suggests the only way to see a fat girl is to erase her. The eraser marks target the word “FAT,” but we all know that women are taught to erase themselves by taking up less space, physically and vocally. When you erase the fat and leave the girl, you’re still not getting much person.

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In the first story, readers are immediately exposed to the amount of comparison that fat women do to one another. I am well aware of how this works, as I published a short story called “Fat Woman Socializing” after realizing how much I compared myself to other fat women in the past (a habit I have since squashed after a lot of hard, purposeful work to change my thought patterns).  At this point, the main character, Elizabeth, and her friend Mel are teenagers; comparing comes naturally to adolescents. Yet, Elizabeth keeps up the comparing well into adulthood, and she’s never kind.

Much of the book is told in first person by Elizabeth, but there are point of view switches, such as in the second story in which a man only calls “the fat girl” when he’s drunk and been rejected by his skinny girlfriend. Later, Elizabeth’s husband narrates a story. These two voices are the only that suggest Elizabeth has a life beyond her weight. Drunk guy mentions she bakes, and her husband notes that she used to listen to music in the dark. Beyond that, Awad’s portrayal of a fat woman severely disappointed me. Elizabeth changes her name — Beth, Lizzie, Liz, Elizabeth — in an effort to become someone else. She barely gets through high school, but later we’re told she has a college degree. Hoping for some positivity here, I was crushed when I read that Elizabeth spends her adult years temping. But what does she do at this temp job? What are her passions away from work? She doesn’t even describe her love of baking or music, so readers are left without any indication of who this character is. She’s fat or she’s not fat; that’s it.

Awad also fails to consider differences in preferences, like all fat women are the same, as seen when Elizabeth’s husband observes the secretaries at his office:

[A co-worker] brings in a Tupperware container full of [butter tartlets] and offers some to the fat secretaries, all of whom snatch greedy handfuls and say they’re just scrumptious.

The husband suggests the women are fat and greedy, but I hold Awad responsible for suggesting that all secretaries are fat, and all fat people are greedy. It’s as if the author wants readers to confirm their stereotypes about fat people so they feel vindicated.

But the book is about Elizabeth, and readers never learn if she is an introvert or extrovert. In fact, she feels very human when another girl in high school puts eye makeup on her, which she then refuses to wash off (it’s still smeared on her eyes over a week later). In the same story, she ventures into online dating and vies for the attention of a quadriplegic who is 47. The scene in which her friend with the eye makeup realizes Elizabeth has been dating this man is offensive to both fat women and people with disabilities:

“And are you ever actually going to meet this guy? Are you really going to fly to fucking Irvine or wherever he lives? How is he going to pick you up from the airport? Do you even want this guy to fuck you? Can he even fuck you?

Awad’s characters suggest that a relationship that doesn’t end in sex is pointless, that people can’t love each other without sex. In fact, every part of this book weighs characters on their ability to 1) have sex and 2) get the partner to acknowledge in public that they had sex with a fat woman. Awad creates suspicious readers so that when someone does want to have sex or a relationship with Elizabeth, we immediately write them off as a pervert with a fat fetish.

True to fat fiction form, Elizabeth loses a ton of weight. Whereas the romance novels would have her finally get the attention of her hot boss on whom she’s been crushing for years, Elizabeth never changes — because she never had a personality in the first place. Awad reminds readers incessantly that Elizabeth eats almost nothing, works out obsessively, and that she’s still temping. By the end of the book, Elizabeth’s way of thinking has changed somewhat, though that’s a stretch to argue as she never had a “way of thinking” beforehand, as in readers never experience why she so abhors her fat body. We learn to hate our bodies when society tells us to; we’re not born hating ourselves. Imagine how bold and unself-conscious you were at a very young age, that is, until you heard your mom criticize her wobbly arms or your aunt lambaste her butt or the first time someone told you to hold your tummy in. No, Elizabeth, in the end, decides that size Large is still “fat girl,” but she’s not militant about changing.

That’s not the end, though; Elizabeth gets in some last jabs. When she returns as an adult to the store where she used to by clothes as a fat teen, she remembers the sales woman who works there. She thinks the woman’s “jewelry is still aggressively cheerful, still screams, I’m trying to make the best of things.” The assumption is that the woman is trying to cheer herself up because she’s so miserable with her fat, dreary life. Perhaps Elizabeth is the kind of character who would have these thoughts, but since she’s such a blank nothingness of a person, the thoughts can only come from Awad. Perhaps Awad’s experiences mirror Elizabeth’s own, but this isn’t a memoir. Fiction writers are responsible for the messages their characters send out.

A potential positive, one obvious way the author implies that weight loss is not the answer is by using the adjectives “lose” or “losing” without the noun “weight.” Therefore, Elizabeth is losing. I felt this tactic was clumsy and a last attempt to show readers she’s on the side of the fat girl, though if she were, her character would be well-rounded in more ways that one.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. It’s demeaning, inaccurate, and full of flat stereotypes. If you are fat like me, you’ll come out of it angry, but you’ll first need to feel depressed for 212 pages.

Chicken Scratch #BookReview #ReadWomen

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Chicken Scratch #BookReview #ReadWomen

Chicken Scratch: Stories of Love, Risk & Poultry 

by Kelly Chripczuk

Self-published October, 2016chicken-cover


In 2014 I headed off to a writing retreat in Virginia. On the side of a mountain is where I met Kelly Chripczuk, a pastor, writer, mother, and wife who, on the first night, shared a nonfiction piece she wrote about getting four kids to a pool for swimming lessons only to realize at the last second that one of her boys needs to use the bathroom. It was her voice, calm and strong, that I remember, but also the details, such as holding her little boy toward the toilet like a weapon of sorts as he pretty much hoses down the stall.

If you check out my blogroll, Chripczuk is on there as A Field of Wild Flowers. Though I am not a follower of any religion, I’m curious about and have respect for the connection between stories from religious texts and the ways individuals integrate those stories into their lives. Chripczuk is a master of drawing in a flock of readers. I can tell I’m not alone when I feel the magic of her words and ideas. Chripczuk isn’t simply a leader; she openly shares when she falls down — hard sometimes — and exposes her wounds so that readers may not only learn from them, but care for her, too. It’s a community, really.

In October 2016, Chripczuk self-published a very short book, Chicken Scratch, and I bought it hopes of “owning” some of the magic of her blog. I wanted those peaceful words in my  hand. At 67 pages on my Kindle, the book is short. It details the decision to get chickens to make money selling eggs, but we quickly learn that chickens have much to teach a mother with four kids (which includes a set of pre-school aged twins).

Chripczuk begins by describing her love of the Psalms in the bible, which spoke to her as narratives. She writes how the Psalmists “awoke [her] to the possibility of finding God in the world around us using language to witness the reality of that presence.” While Chripczuk studies and ministers the gospel, she notes why she loves animals. She writes, “Groping for words, for understanding of my own dawning awareness, I [concluded], ‘They help me see different ways of being’.” Here is where Chripczuk shines; instead of working so hard to be the “right kind” of person, she looks to animals and mimics the way they inhabit the earth, from stretching and sniffing around the yard on the first nice spring day, to pairing off and relying on a partner. “I guess,” Chripczuk  realizes, “if you’re the kind of person who can fall in love with a Polish hen, then life’s gonna hurt.” Readers can take a lesson from Chripczuk, even if they can’t own chickens.

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I love her advertising–all done by Chripczuk!

Chicken Scratch is honest. When Chripczuk visits a therapist, she tosses out that she got a flock of chickens, to which the therapists responds, “Hey, it sounds like fun . . . and it’s not big deal if it doesn’t work out.” But are we Americans good at failing? The debate between “winners and losers” vs. the “participation ribbon” generations never strikes me as a particularly helpful one, yet failing can always hurt. Chripczuk  announces to her therapist:

I know that . . . but it’s one thing to know it’s ok to fail and another to experience failure. I need to create chances to fail, so I can feel it all the way down, not just know it in my head.

To actually feel our feelings, well, feels like a no-brainer. But how often do you sit and feel your sadness? Your defeat? Your contentment?

When I met Chripczuk and learned she was a minister and spiritual adviser and mother, I was a bit intimidated; I am none of those things (not even close). I figured she had a the natural maternal instinct of an orangutan, an animal that I admire for its care of and love toward its infants. But when Chripczuk and her husband decide to attend a parenting class (despite already having two children) for families expecting more than one baby, she learns that two babies require a different kind of care because they need attention at the same time. The leader, “a mother of five including a set of twins,” explains how to breastfeed two babies at once, how to hold two babies at once, how to burp and bounce two babies at once. I could feel a wave of weirdness flood over me as I pictured such a life, but then Chripczuk, whom I had created as “Most Natural Mother of the Year” in my head, reports:

I can’t say for sure what I thought at the time, but I imagine I was something close to horrified at the thought of so many little people climbing, lounging, and feeding on me.

Though our lives are so very different, Chripczuk’s honesty made her relatable — and I felt closer to all kinds of women in that moment.chicken-quote

While the safety and value of her chicken flock and the happiness of her children weigh heavily on Chripczuk’s mind, she also thinks bigger picture. She knows her house is chaos, that there aren’t really chickens allowed in her Pennsylvania development, so looking around at her small farm, she wonders if her family’s lifestyle is bringing down the value of the surrounding homes and feels embarrassed by their choices. Don’t we all, for one reason or another, wonder if we’re doing it right? If we’re savvy enough, earthy enough, healthy or happy or advanced enough?

At her twin’s pre-school graduation, an event I’ll never understand, she worries that she doesn’t appear excited enough for the event. Will she take enough photos? Is the family dressed respectably enough? Will she be happy or tearful — or whatever society wants — enough? It’s the chickens though, those talkative, escapee, messy birds that remind her that animals do what’s natural, and that she can take less-than-perfect scenarios and see the beauty in them. She learns, “I’ve never found a hidden nest by shaming a bird. I’ve never sat a chicken down and had a stern talk eye-to-eye.”

While Chicken Scratch loses just a hint of the magic I find at Chripczuk’s blog, mainly because the focus is very much on chickens and misses out on the smaller moments in between, it was a pleasant reminder to look for signs from unconventional places on how to act and think, but without heading into saccharine territories.

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Chicken Scratch is available on Amazon!

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.

In His Genes #science #BookReview

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In His Genes #science #BookReview

In His Genes (2013) by Robin Stratton is a slim novel at 183 pages. The story follows Cassie, a woman on the verge of 40, who works in a lab with the handsome do-gooder Dr. Jack Miller. Jack is tying to find the gene mutation linked to a rare disease called Voight’s that causes women to give birth to male babies who are covered in sores and screaming. A few days later, the mother, who was otherwise healthy, dies. Jack’s own wife died from Voight’s, and he’s racing against the clock to save his son, Jeremy.

At first, In His Genes felt like it followed standard protocol for a romance novel: the good-looking male boss and the woman who works way below her intellectual abilities for no money because she’s happy to be near the man. The old “this woman is so smart that she should be the boss, and honestly, he can’t do anything without her” thing. The familiar “she’s like a comfortable shoe” theme. Throw in the sexy, accomplished Dr. Renee Temple, with her excellent fake breasts, who visits Jack once per month for a good roll in the sheets, and we have everything we expect. Unfortunately, Dr. Temple is written with limited emotional range: uncaring, petty, catty. She was more like a paper doll than a person, so it was hard to hater her even though she forgets Jack even has a son.

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Although the cozy relationship between Jack and Cassie is meant to give readers something to root for — that moment when they admit they’re meant for each other and he stops seeing Dr. Temple — I was uncomfortable with how much they “played house” as boss and employee. Jack calls Cassie to have her come to the hospital when his son has flare ups of Voight’s disease — and she goes. He expresses sadness over being unable to pay her for all the extra hours she works. They have dinner together at his house, and she loves son and kisses him goodnight. The whole relationship is so inappropriate that I felt uncomfortable. Cassie’s life is on pause while she waits for her boss to figure out she cares about him and is acting as wife and mother in his life. It’s another movie trope, one that has women wait and wait and wait — where’s the initiative? The self-respect?

It was early on I realized I wasn’t sure how to perceive Cassie. First, I couldn’t keep track of her age (almost 40) because I kept thinking she was a post-grad student, someone in her early 20s. Whenever I did remember her age, I couldn’t figure out what she did before she worked in Jack’s lab. She’s only been there for 2  years. It’s weekends, late nights, almost no pay, so Cassie certainly works like a grad student. I felt sad that yet another woman was putting herself in financial jeopardy to play second trombone in the hopes that her boss would open his eyes and fall in love with her.

Cassie is supposed to be a nice woman: her parents love her, her boss loves her, her boss’s son loves her, she’s donating tons of her time for science (albeit so she can be close to her boss). Cassie is supposed to be a happy woman who was “a reader, straight-A student, volleyball star [who] attended Boston College on a scholarship [and] majored in anthropology.” Yet, at times, Cassie was petty enough that I was surprised by the extent of it. Jack’s sister, Margaret, quit her job to care for Jeremy. She’s an MIT grad who pays attention to the benefits of nutrition and rest to prevent flare ups. Still, Cassie is jealous of this woman, as if Jack may fall in love with his sister. Cassie mentally criticizes:

Tall and slender with long, glossy dark hair, [Margaret would] be pretty if not for her crabby pinched-up expression. Rarely smiles, never dates. Destined to be bitter and alone. I look away. Her choice has nothing to do with me.

I just… really can’t get behind this sort of negative criticism of other women, especially when it concerns a woman’s appearance or her status in relation to a man. Was Stratton trying to make Cassie seem petty?

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But Stratton throws readers a plot twist: Palmer, a guy in his 50s performing Beat poetry in a cafe who is able to magically fix Cassie’s car when the battery dies on a cold winter night. He’s weird yet caring, and I hoped that the introduction of Palmer would steer the story away from the familiar “underling who loves her boss” trope. Palmer appears everywhere without reason, like he’s stalking Cassie, but he’s kind and takes interest in her work (and even knows about the incredibly rare Voight’s disease). But he won’t take her to his apartment. Has Stratton saddled us with the married adulterer theme? No, Palmer is something entirely different, which I won’t describe because it delves into spoiler territory. The plot heads into some unbelievable directions, such as when a VIP gets Voight’s and Palmer works some magic on Jack’s suffering son.

The book tries to compare science with belief (not necessarily religion), which I felt wasn’t fully executed, make the comparisons unclear. Palmer, who represents belief, wants Cassie to trust without proof, but the science in the book is more about DNA strands and other jargon, instead of principles and hypotheses, so it’s hard to see how the two contrast.

I have a couple of other Robin Stratton books that I plan to read, but for now I would recommend choosing her novel On Air for the humorous comments, genuine emotion, and original plot, instead of In His Genes.

A Cute Tombstone #bookreview #readwomen #Russia

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A Cute Tombstone #bookreview #readwomen #Russia

A Cute Tombstone by Zarina Zabrisky

published by Epic Rites Press, 2013 (48 pages)

A Cute Tombstone includes two pieces, a short poem called “The Hat” and the main story. Before the poem is a beautiful black-and-white picture of a woman in a giant, fluffy black hat with bows on it. The woman herself is quite attractive and put together. In the poem, the hat first represents love, but the hat might disintegrate or be the woman herself (without a head) or be put on a man’s head or the woman’s head (it fits at first but then it doesn’t) until we’re uncertain what the hat means, as if there cannot be love because we don’t know what it means.a cute tombstone 2

Following the poem is the long story “A Cute Tombstone,” preceded by another black-and-white picture of a woman in simple clothes. Her portrait is beautiful, but comes from the era when smiles in pictures were not welcome, so she looks unhappy or mournful instead. In this title story, a Russian woman who moved to the U.S. 11 years prior gets The Hatthe call that her mother has died in Russia. The narrator reflects on the ease of death in the U.S. and that shoppers at Costco can sample nuts, buy Cheerios, or purchase a coffin. Before the mother died, Russia represented crazy, decadent summers of parties and friends for the narrator, but when she returns to make the funeral arrangements, she can’t help but note that everyone winks, the traditions try to overpower the individual’s wants, and there are always smells in the air that are unfamiliar to Americans: fish pies, vodka, raspberry marmalade. In this way, Zabrisky produces the experiences of a Russian through the lens of an American.

American readers see what’s unusual, and the details are enough to make the story’s setting and characters vividly “other.” When the narrator heads to a funeral portrait business to get her mother’s photo enlarged to put next to the closed casket, she notices the displays of others’ funeral portraits: “I imagine their lives: At six, they probably played with German trains and tanks—war souvenirs. At eighteen they were getting married in dresses made from curtains, airy veils and ill-fitted military uniforms—the women pregnant already.”

Zabrisky’s story is smooth and melodious. It’s important to read the punctuation carefully, the words slowly, to get the full poetic effect. A sentence may begin positively and end in a new place. You won’t be lost; she’ll lead you there, but if you read too fast, you’ll find you’re trying to gulp down your specially-made meal.

*Review originally published with some slight changes at TNBBC. Thank you to Zarina Zabrisky and Epic Rites Press for sending me this reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

Why We Never Talk About Sugar #bookreview #readwomen #science @aubreyhirsch

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Why We Never Talk About Sugar #bookreview #readwomen #science @aubreyhirsch


Why We Never Talk About Sugar 
by Aubrey Hirsch

published by Braddock Avenue Books, 2012

Aubrey Hirsch, who we previously met in a Meet the Writer feature, dishes out 16 pieces of fiction in this collection. The key themes were physics, being stranded, childlessness, and illness. I especially applaud Hirsch for having these themes without pounding me over the head, telling me in an obvious fashion that her stories are related. She trusts her reader.

The power of belief was a major factor in the stories about childlessness. In “Certainty,” when two lesbians want to have a baby, Cris decides she wants it to genetically be their baby, and that with enough belief it could happen, despite a zero percent chance. Her partner thinks about probability and the meaning of love:

If Cris and I could have a child together, I knew that kid would be the best, most interesting kid on the planet. But I also knew we couldn’t. Every time we made love, Cris looked at me with this intense longing. She was trying to make it happen. I could tell. And sometimes, right before I came, I almost thought it was possible.

Here, I could feel the intensity of Cris trying to make something with her love (and dare I say I wanted to believe it could happen in Hirsch’s world?).

The sadness in the stories involving multiple sclerosis were the ones that broke my heart. In “No System for Blindness,” a daughter stays with her father as his disease worsens. Some symptoms are permanent while others can be managed. When he wakes up blind, they cross their fingers that it will pass. Just the description of the two eating breakfast, and the careful way Hirsch shows us that the father is blind, gave me chills (and made me want to cry):

He stares past me, to my left, tapping the table in search of his glasses. There is powdered sugar in his beard. It makes him look older. He places his glasses back on the bridge of his nose. There is a greasy white streak across one lens, but he can’t see it.

An impressive part of Hirsch’s stories is her knowledge of physics. The formulas and ideas read more like poetry and were a way to talk about life and relationships. As an example, a young man gives a woman a birthday present, even though it is their third date, because one should always give birthday gifts. His present?

“It’s a picture of subatomic particles, through an electron microscope. The technical term is ‘hydrogen event in a bubble chamber.’ It’s what happens when two particles are smashed together at very high speeds. This one’s from the accelerator at FermiLab. The lines and spots are tracks made by the explosion.” He runs a bulky fingertip along one of the swirls. “See?”

What a moment, yes? My first thought, albeit inappropriate, was, “Why hasn’t someone given me a hydrogen event in a bubble chamber?” Hirsch has this way of bringing the reader into at least one of the character’s shoes in each story, grounding us 16 separate times.

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

Rilla of Ingleside #20BooksofSummer #WWI

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Rilla of Ingleside #20BooksofSummer #WWI

Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery (1921)

Book #8 — the final novel — in the Anne of Green Gables series. Be sure to read my previous reviews, linked below, before you read this one!


As Anne and Gilbert Blythe aged, LMM’s narrator began referring to them as Mrs. Blythe and Dr. Blythe. These distant names allowed me to forget this series started with Anne, so I didn’t feel quite so bitter like other readers when the novels were no longer really about her. While I didn’t love Anne of Ingleside — even in that book she was Mrs. Blythe and barely played a role — I did love Rainbow Valley. Both books are about children, the Blythes and then the newcomers, the Merediths. I’d like to say you could skip book #6 and just read #7 and #8, but you’d have a terrible foundation for the relationships between the important characters in Rilla of Ingleside. The children grow up and start falling in love with their friends and parents’ friends’ children: the Merediths, the Fords from Anne’s House of Dreams, the Crawfords, whom I don’t remember, but apparently there are a lot of them. You practically need to remember all the characters from the previous 7 books. When I forgot who someone was, I looked them up on the trusty Wikia created by fans; however, spoilers abound on that site — and I didn’t know until a few things were spoiled for me! Doh!

The year is 1914. The novel opens with trusty old Susan, whom I’ve always found boring and bossy in a bad way, reading the Glen newspaper. She’s looking for the gossip column about Glen folks and is happy to see that many inhabitants of Ingleside have made the news for their accomplishments. The paper also mentions something about an Archduke being killed, but really, it’s not decent for such things to clutter up Susan’s gossip.

Rilla is now 15. Her parents say she’s irresponsible and unmotivated (no extra schooling for her, thank you very much, and no, she will not be learning how to cook, bake, sew, or keep house because that’s boring — and maybe she’s implying it’s beneath her?). But Rilla is beautiful, and LMM has taught me nothing if not beauty rules the world.  The book opens with her hardly able to wait to attend her first dance. Although Rilla has a splendid time and spends an hour alone with Kenneth Ford, the night is ruined when a boy runs into the dance exclaiming that war has been declared — readers know this is World War I. Fortunately, Kenneth had broken his ankle and it’s still healing, and Walter Blythe is still recovering from a near-fatal bout of typhoid, so they won’t go. But Jem Blythe is so terribly excited about signing up, telling everyone how fun war will be. He and Jerry Meredith are the firsts to go, making everyone proud. The war will be over in a month or two for sure.

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And that’s the basic summary of how the novel starts. But there’s something different about Rilla of Ingleside: I felt engaged and involved in a way I haven’t felt with no other Green Gables book. At first, I was very worried about how shallow Book #8 might be. Rilla is a pill. She tells her friend:

“There’s five [Blythes] going to college already. Surely that’s enough. There’s bound to be one dunce in every family. I’m quite willing to be a dunce if I can be a pretty, popular, delightful one. I have no talent at all, and you can’t imagine how comfortable that is.”

I mean, this girl is my enemy. She’s the girl I see sitting in my classroom whose parent forced her to go to college, but she’s always 20 minutes late to the 8:00AM class because putting on make-up to literally look like Barbie is time consuming.

Rilla

Yet a war won’t allow someone to stay a pill, not one capable of love. Rilla must change, and LMM does a splendid job with character development. One by one the boys of the Glen leave, and Rilla must be strong for them so they can be strong in the trenches. That’s a big request, one Rilla realizes she must take seriously. At her mother’s encouragement, she starts a Junior Red Cross. While canvassing one day for the JRC, she decides to go to a home that looks a little problematic due to the residents’ possible attitudes on canvassers (Oh, how this reminded me of Anne and Diane canvassing in Anne of Avonlea). What Rilla finds through an already-open door is a dead woman, a fat woman smoking and drinking, and a shrieking newborn. The mother gave birth and didn’t recover, so the fat woman stuck around, but wasn’t caring for the baby. The father had enlisted and so was gone, not knowing of the birth of a baby. Rilla, shallow Rilla, decides she can’t leave the baby there. She carries the “ugly baby,” who isn’t dressed or clean, home in a soup tureen. Problem is, Rilla hates babies:

“I wish I could like the baby a little bit. It would make things easier. But I don’t. I’ve heard people say that when you took care of a baby you got fond of it — but you don’t — don’t, anyway.”

To avoid burdening Susan or her mother, Rilla buys a book called Morgan on Infants. It’s so specific and funny reading a how-to book on babies from the 1920s, such as it’s unhygienic to kiss an infant on the face (I agree) and never walk a baby to comfort it. Yet, Rilla does walk her nameless war baby: “I could have shaken the creature if it had been big enough to shake, but it wasn’t.” Shaken?? Good grief! Rilla’s frustrations didn’t strike me as barbaric or cruel, though; I found her realistic. If in 2016 I have to defend my decision to not have children, imagine Rilla saying she doesn’t like babies in 1914. Some people see crying babies and feel empathy; others of us want them to be quite now. It was strange; I never thought I would connect personally with a Green Gables book, but Rilla had me connecting with her frequently. Even much later Rilla says, “No, I don’t like you and I never will but for all that I’m going to make a decent, upstanding infant of you.” Oh, how I laughed!

The novel is told via a narrator and occasionally a diary that Rilla keeps. The balance works well. As you may remember, I didn’t care for the majority of Anne of Windy Poplars being told as letters, mainly because they read exactly like the narrator. Was the narrator Anne? No, but their voices were indistinguishable. Rilla’s diary, however, is very Rilla, and it’s awfully sassy, too. Her voice is unique, strong, and enjoyable. She has a lot to say that couldn’t be uttered aloud, so readers get a true insight into her feelings.

WWI postcard

Letters are sent back and forth from Canada to the trenches through the whole book.

Rilla also learns to knit “war socks” and bake food to send over seas. She grows and changes. She humiliates herself by apologizing to a truly cruel young woman in order to make a success of the Junior Red Cross benefit concert. There’s a determination there, much like Anne Shirley’s determination to never be friends with Gilbert Blythe, but her determination is written in a way that’s both funny and significant. You want Rilla’s plans to work out, as she really is working hard to be the support the boys in khaki need and were promised.

War Socks

Another big transformation that I loved happened in Susan, a character I never liked. In fact, I was more endeared to Rebecca Dew of Anne of Windy Poplars, even though Susan’s been in four whole books! But war changes everyone. Susan religiously reads the newspapers for stories from the front. She memorizes geography, difficult to pronounce names, important leaders, and learns the in’s and out’s of politics. Really, she’s the most knowledgeable of the characters on the war. She’s calling the local store for the most recent news, and she usually gets it before anyone else. I was amazed and grew to love Susan for the upstanding person she became. She rationed and sewed and dug up her beloved flowers to make a potato garden and ran up the flag after small victories and tilled a field and chased a German sympathizer with a pot of boiling dye.

Most memorably, the author had me in shambles for most of the book. I’ve never read a war story that, to me, realistically captured what it was like for the people at home. Sure, the characters get to sleep in their own beds and eat good meals and be relatively lice-free (Jem says he’s fighting “Germans and cooties”), but the agony of not knowing day after day …and the war lasts four years… is just awful. I never thought it could be as awful at home as in the trenches, but LMM shows it really was. People are jittery and more apt to speak honestly, even if they swear and have bad manners and say negative things about God.

LMM injects pathos both realistic and unrealistic that grabbed me and choked me up with emotion. The soldiers who do come back to the Glen are, realistically, not the same laughing, excited, 18-year-old boys who left. They are men, gaunt, limping, incomplete in body, changed in soul, some with grey hair after only four years — and tears were shed for the reality of it. Then, there’s Dog Monday, the Blythe’s pet who saw Jem off at the train station when Jem signed up immediately for service. Dog Monday will not come home, keeping vigil at the train station and checking every passenger who disembarks to see if his beloved master is yet returned. Dog Monday had me crying at times from the heartache I truly felt.

The last paragraph of the book actually had me laughing — from relief, from the romance I hoped would endure between characters, from literally the last word spoken by Rilla Blythe in the book.

Rilla of Ingleside is my favorite book of the Anne of Green Gables series, and for those of you who never read the later books, please do just so you can get to #8. There’s something special and important in this final novel that’s lacking in the previous seven books. When I woke up the day after I finished, I was sad there was no more.

20booksfinal

#20BooksofSummer

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

Here’s the roster:

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

DONE!

Look for my wrap-up and lessons-learned post on the last day of the challenge, Monday, September 5th!