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On Air #readwomen #bookreview #discjockey #20BooksofSummer

On Air #readwomen #bookreview #discjockey #20BooksofSummer

On Air by Robin Stratton

published by Blue Mustang Press, 2011

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

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

on air

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

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

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

“Ma, how can I eat soup and drive?”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Vitamins or something.”

“You belong in the hospital, ma’am….”

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

“We can’t have that,” says Dave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

*Author photo from The Guardian.

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

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

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

bad feminist

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

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

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


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

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

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

west norton.png

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

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

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

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

auntie shrew      lady kluck3      the trunchbull      ursula2

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

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

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



Explosion by Zarina Zabrisky

published by Epic Rites Press, October 2015

“Russians do not surrender…we suffer and survive.”

I can’t even remember how I was introduced to Zarina Zabrisky’s work, but we’ve been in contact for so long now that I consider her a friend whom I would love to meet some day. Zabrisky is a Russian-American woman living in California. Her work is art meets the political, a mashup of filth and beauty. I commented on the horror in her short collection, Iron. American decadence contrasts the difficulties of navigating government institutions in Russia in the novella, A Cute Tombstone. Later, Zabrisky asked me to put together a virtual book tour for A Cute Tombstone, and I learned more about funeral portraits in Russia and the band Pussy Riot. Zabrisky later asked me to put together another virtual book tour for her first novel, We, Monsters. The banner my husband created for the tour, made from two images, is so beautiful:


Back when I had a Weebly address!

Explosion is more like Zabrisky’s earlier short collection. There are 14 short stories (some several pages, others very short) in Explosion, and all are from the point of view of a Russian. Sometimes the setting is California, but it’s almost always Russia.zabrisky explosion

Right away I notice all the drug use; there is so much heroin. “Why?” I ask. Truthfully, my knowledge of Russia is as deep as a puddle, so I made use of my college’s database and started hunting around for articles. Hours and hours later, I felt mad but a bit enlightened. John M. Kramer, author of the article “Drug Abuse in Russia,” notes that a study from 2010 found”Russia has almost as many heroin users (1.5 million) as all other European countries combined (1.6 million)” (31).

While most of Zabrisky’s stories have characters addicted to heroin, the story with the clever name “Heroines” stands out. The narrator speaks to the reader, explaining that she wants to tell us about her friends. She says, “I have a lot of friends. I’m Russian and my girlfriends are Russian.” Next is a list of tragic stories: Alina, dead from a heroin overdose; Marina with Hep C (“We all got Hep C together”); Anna, whose husband abandoned her and their daughter, forcing her to marry again (“In Russia, if you don’t have a man, you’re a waste”); Lana the mail order bride. In many of the 14 stories, women must attach themselves to men to survive. While most of the stories aren’t about drugs, it’s always there, always present, and Zabrisky captures the essence of the setting because so many Russians are actually addicted. 

Disease, like Marina’s Hep-C, is a massive problem. According to Gregory Gilderman, author of the article “Death by Indifference,” a study conducted in 2009 found that somewhere “between 840,000 and 1.2 million are HIV-positive” in Russia, which has a population of around 143,000,000 (44). A lot of the spread of HIV has to do with dirty needles. While some countries like the U.S. have needle exchange programs to slow the spread of people contracting HIV or hepatitis, “nongovernmental organizations [in Russia] that advocate harm reduction strategies—needle exchanges, providing condoms to sex workers—face police harassment and criminal penalties” (Gilderman 45, emphasis mine). Zabrisky’s collection of stories points out the dark times of the Soviet Union resulting from the leadership, without being an in-your-face condemnation that comes off as “preachy.” Truthfully, based on the articles I read, Russia today and the Soviet Union aren’t really that different.

If you’re using or dealing drugs, mum’s the word. But in Explosion, if you’re thinking anything you shouldn’t, you must be silent, too. A girl in 1986 writes in her diary, “Be silent, hide and keep secret your feelings and thoughts. … The thought spoken is a lie.” When the girl starts asking her father, a scientist, questions, he praises her, but the mother scolds them both for saying things that are not acceptable in the Soviet Union, including questions about God. The mother also warns, “And you better only discuss such things like [God] at home, not at school.” More research reminded me that the Soviet Union declared the nation atheist, so God talk was forbidden.

Silence, silence everywhere. In another story, a woman won’t phone the police at the request of a foreign man because she believes the police and the bad guys are the same thing. He asks, “Are you refusing to call?” and she thinks, “I’m refusing to die.” Zabrisky, ever the supporter of Pussy Riot, also fits the story of the band recording their punk prayer into one of her stories. “For the government, men with voice are more dangerous than drug pushers,” she writes, “And women with voice — even more so.” Sometimes, Zabrisky’s voice is more forceful, such as the reference to Pussy Riot, which stands out as being obvious protest in literature, but the subtle undercurrent of silencing remind me again of 1984 and the Thought Police. Such moments are as quite as the citizens, creating a parallel in content and the message.

zabrisky pussy riot

Explosion creates an array of women surviving the Russia that Pussy Riot protests. “You have big boobs and speak English,” one woman is told. She could work as a prostitute and get intel from foreigners. “The just under one million sex workers in Russia, for instance, live at the whim equally of pimps and the police, and have no practical recourse if they are raped or assaulted,” Gilderman writes (48). The other option is to marry foreigners. “What’s love?” one woman asks her sister, “I’ll find you a husband. I’ll get you out of here.” Women have no autonomy in Zabrisky’s collection, not even when they move away. “Unfortunately, for many adolescent boys and even adult men, the shaping of their male identity involves the debasement and suppression of girls,” (61) adds T.A. Gurko, author of “Underage Females’ Experiences Of Sexual Relations, Motherhood, And Married Life.”

Women are often seduced by the promise of marriage because they are “whores” and “sluts” and compromise Russia’s traditional values when they are single. One character is in love with a drug dealer, who promises to marry her. She feels no concern when she discovers she’s pregnant, but T.A. Gurko notes, “As the men [in the survey] put it, ‘promising her you will marry her does not mean you will.’ At best he may offer to get her an abortion; at worst he will do everything he can to cut off the relationship” (67). I don’t mean to imply that I’m fact-checking Zabrisky’s work; men abandon women in all countries. But the situations present in her collection, because they reoccur so much, made me want to learn more. Very few books encourage me to be more knowledgeable. In this case, gaining information made me sympathetic for the plight of women in Russia — they didn’t even have tampons, one character points out.

Poverty is a big factor in survival, especially for women and their children, who are almost always abandoned in these stories. Poverty can be conveyed in simple descriptions, and Zabrisky always picks just the right images: “watery mud covered everything in view: a playground with iron bars and broken swings, homeless dogs, and a skinny cow by the broken fence, chewing on a plastic bag.” That bag may not mean much to you (except concern for what it will do to the cow’s intestines), but check this out:

If Russia represents poverty, America is wealth. A young girl covets a plastic bag a schoolmate has — I know, right? — and finally trades a great deal for it. She is so happy:

I took the bag and sniffed it. It definitely didn’t smell of all-purpose Russian soap … the smell of grease, dirt, and poverty. … This bag smelled like chewing gum, like a dream: foreign, delicious, the aroma of unknown tropical countries, coconuts and pineapples I have never tried, of exotic sea ports. … Weakly, vaguely, the bright plastic smelled of America.

Zabrisky mentions good teeth and iPhones as symbols of doing well in America, choosing examples that are subtle, but easy for this American reader to compare.

Again, the theme is subtly in each story, but over 14 stories it adds up to a strong, unmistakable picture of an oppressive, anti-female Russia. There isn’t a single quote that can capture the feel of the whole collection, but when it adds up, you start to get a gross feeling in your stomach — a totally appropriate response to the massive injustices, poverty, starvation, dismissed lives, and deaths that could have been prevented. Though it is an unpleasant feeling, imagine the people who are living it and remember that literature is meant to teach us about those unlike ourselves, to open our worldview and do something about it.

I want to thank Zarina Zabrisky for a copy of Explosion in exchange for an honest review. Click HERE to read an interview I conducted with Zabrisky about her newest collection!


Gilderman, Gregory. “Death By Indifference.” World Affairs 175.5 (2013): 44-50. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 11 May 2016.

Gurko, T.A. “Underage Females’ Experiences Of Sexual Relations, Motherhood, And Married Life.” Russian Social Science Review 45.3 (2004): 58-77. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 11 May 2016.

Kramer, John M. “Drug Abuse In Russia.” Problems Of Post-Communism 58.1 (2011): 31. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 13 May 2016.


How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch

How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch

TITLE: How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch
AUTHOR: D. Bryant Simmons
PUBLISHER: Bravebird Publishing (Jan 2014)

D. Bryant Simmons has already made an appearance at Grab the Lapels when she answered my questions for the Meet the Writer series, and I am pleased to be able to review her book, How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch, which is the first in what is called the Morrow Girls series. D’s second book in the series, Blue Sky, was recently released, so if you like this review and read the book, the second one is available!

How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch is set mostly in the 1970s and is about Belinda (“Pecan”), a girl with a daddy who raised her right and loved her so, but when a Ricky comes into her town, things get messy. Pecan’s daddy doesn’t really seem to like Ricky, but he can’t say too much about it, as he has a heart attack and dies within the first few pages. Ricky and Pecan get married and move to Chicago where Ricky trains as a boxer and Pecan starts having babies. Girl after girl is born, and Ricky really wants a boy. He appears to hold this against Pecan, but that’s not surprising; Ricky has a temper on him and fists trained to hit. For several years, Ricky’s Aunt Clara lives with the family, and she is often able to keep Ricky from knocking the crap out of Pecan by threatening him with a cast iron skillet. But one night, when Pecan goes dancing with her girlfriends after Aunt Clara tells her she has to, Pecan meets an honorable man.

It’s not 100% clear to me what would be considered a spoiler, so I’ll stop there. There are two distinct aspects of this novel that stand out: the way Simmons challenges the reader to face their preconceived notions about domestic abuse, and the pacing.

It’s fairly early in the story that the reader learns that Ricky hits. Pecan tries to use her voice for the first time, but is silenced:

That’s all I could get out before he hit me again. And again. And again. I just couldn’t believe it. Not me. Other girls might have that happen to them but not me. My man was not doing that to me.

There are a series of thoughts that I had as a reader that made me feel horrible, and I believe Simmons was doing this to me on purpose. First, I paid attention to why Ricky hit Pecan the first time. Shortly after their first baby is born, Pecan packs up the baby and as much food as she can carry and tries to run away. She says that she has been lying to him to tell him what he wants to hear, but if I think back on the timeline, they haven’t been together that long. Why did she marry the first guy to talk to her, I ask, if she’s just going to lie to him? When I think about Ricky finding Pecan standing on the sidewalk with his baby and her guilt, I realize that I would be mad, too. Then comes the hitting. It’s that moment that Simmons makes readers tie together poor logic: Pecan was being a horrible person, and Ricky was just reacting. Of course, people make these logical leaps in the real world all the time. We excuse the hitters and blame the victims–and are quick to do so. When Pecan spends years and years and years getting hit by Ricky, readers are forced to wonder why she doesn’t call the police. Why she doesn’t try to run away again. Why she doesn’t ask for help. We think, Oh, she’s probably thinking he doesn’t hit the kids, so it’s okay, but once he does she’ll leave (how stupid; of course he’ll eventually hit the kids). This is where we must all stop; why are we asking questions of what Pecan does and doesn’t do and not of what Ricky does? This is one of the triumph’s of Simmons’s novel: she makes readers go to these uncomfortable places and face their own judgments.

The pacing becomes very important to making the novel realistic. The children growing are great time indicators, and part of their growth is not just age, but in cognitive function. They begin to realize what’s going on, to speak to their mother differently than their father, to realize what makes them afraid. Watching the four daughters grow into their personalities gives the book a slow, steady pace that demonstrates just how long the domestic abuse goes on. We don’t need to read about every punch and every cut, black eye, and broken bone (I remember reading these details in Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and feeling sick over and over) because there are other ways Simmons shows how time progresses. When child protective services gets involved, it seems like the whole CPS agent/home visits is a waste of time to the point where I felt myself getting angry with an agency designed to help children be with their parents and be properly cared for. It feels like Pecan will never be with her family and happy and unafraid because someone will always be a barrier.

Took my time going down the stairs. One step at a time. Holding onto the banister and the wall. Had to come up with new reasons to get outta bed every night. Wasn’t no sense in having both of us worry. I flicked on the lights and checked each window on the main floor. Had to wait until bedtime because Heziah was in the habit of opening a window every time he went into a room, but most of the time he forgot to close and lock it. Wasn’t his fault. He just ain’t know like I did. I knew better than to leave anything open or unlocked. We’d gotten the locks changed, but Ricky Morrow wasn’t the type to let a locked door stop him.

And it is this slow pacing that gives the book its realistic feel; separation, violence, legal issues, and parents’ rights are not easy topics to summarize and stuff in the closet. It’s a long, drawn-out process that affects so many individuals, and Simmons captures that reality in her book.

Overall, How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch is novel that is able to capture many characters and render them in a realistic tone that makes it pleasurable to read in addition to the challenging topics readers will face.

PHD to Ph.D.

PHD to Ph.D.

Po Ho on Dope

Title: PHD (Po H# on Dope) to Ph.D.: How Education Saved My Life

Author: Elaine Richardson, Ph.D.

Published by: New City Community Press in 2013

For me, it’s been a long time between finishing this book and writing the review—about two weeks. I always have something to say about a book, but am careful to write an outline and decide which pages I want to point to and quote. But this book has almost scared me out of writing anything. I met Elaine Richardson at an education conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she was a keynote speaker. She was electric, charming, and intelligent in a way that intimidated me despite my own schooling and experience as an adjunct professor. When she signed my book, she was very kind and wrote, “Melanie, thanks for teaching and loving! Dr. E.”

PHD to Ph.D. is Richardson’s memoir about growing up a black girl in Cleveland. She writes briefly about her parents, a mother from Jamaica with very little education and a father who played with Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, though he was never famous (7). Richardson has some girlfriends who help her get into trouble when she is a girl, and later starts dating a much older boy, which is when things get drastically worse. He begins using her as a prostitute, and Richardson ends up prostituting until she is about 27. She has a baby with one of her pimps, and another baby whose father she doesn’t know. On many occasions, Richardson almost dies. When she finally gets things together and decides to go back to school, she never could have imagined how education would save her from certain death. The book is a compulsive read, but isn’t balanced evenly between being a drugged-out prostitute and a college student.

Richardson made me care about the people in her memoir. Her father isn’t written about much, but I still remember how cool he was in his old neighborhood. Richardson writes that her father dressed “gangsta style. When he wasn’t going to work, he wore his brim broke down and carried his pool stick in a long black case….His pool shootin friends called him ‘Bullwhip shawty from section 40’…” (5). Her father was a Black Muslim, like Malcolm X, and he had a “Black name” (meaning his Muslim name): Gulam Jameel Abdul-Rasheed (7). Richardson remembers how she felt about her father: “[My brother and me] cracked up at that name. We didn’t know any better. Daddy was also into something called Mentalphysics. He had his books and encyclopedias in a special place in the living room and couldn’t nobody touch em!” (7). Richardson’s dad is a textured guy: gangsta, pool shooter, musician, Black Muslim, reader, and I liked how memorable he was. I also like that Richardson maintains her childish voice: it’s “mentalphysics” as she remembers it, instead of “metaphysics.”

Her mother, too, was a vivid presence, though she is mentioned a lot more than the father. It really stuck with me that when Richardson was on a drugs and prostituting that her mother would call the police anytime she saw her daughter on the streets (141). The mother doesn’t necessarily want her daughter in trouble, but kept from dying.

Richardson herself is someone I care about, even when she makes terrible choices and I want to dislike her. While it may sound like Richardson writes herself in a sympathetic light, I didn’t find that to be the case. People live their lives and survive as best they can, period. Richardson describes herself as a girl: “I was a good kid. I played violin in the orchestra, sang in the choir, I was in the smart kids’ reading group, I was outgoing” (24). But, she’s also tormented, made fun of: “Other names people called me were chub, fat girl, liver lips, rubber lips, and bubble lips” (21). Down and down her sense of self-worth goes, and Richardson knows it’s important to connect her self-esteem to becoming a prostitute.

In 7th grade (about age 12) she is a victim of statutory rape and becomes pregnant. Her mother helps her procure an abortion, and Richardson reflects on it. She realizes she shouldn’t have hung out with girls who “knew” more than her, and she shouldn’t have gone into a room with a boy who was 19, because that meant that you wanted to have sex. She says she didn’t know these things at the time (43). We all know that hanging out with the cool, fast girls is a way to heal our broken self-esteem.

But, her new boyfriend, Andrew, understands nothing, and when they have intercourse, he comments on how “loose” she is. Richardson breaks my heart when she writes, “I had had an abortion in the second trimester. The baby I would have had was developed. Whatever the size of my vagina, it was the way it was because I had had a dead baby. All he talked about was how huge I was down there” (43). While dating Andrew, who is 17, Richardson continues to go to junior high, where she loves to learn. She is leading a double life of intelligent girl at school, and girl with poor self-esteem hanging out with older boys who pay attention to her. Andrew eventually convinces Richardson that if she loves him she will work the street, and he becomes her pimp.

I learned that pimps have favorite “hos” and treat that prostitute almost like a girlfriend. When Richardson has intercourse with her second pimp, AC, she knows that she feels nothing from sex. She believes it might be her experience in 7th grade or from having turned tricks for a while already, but it’s like she’s dead inside to sexual relationships (98). I felt terrible when I read her assessment. Sexual intimacy is so important, but Richardson doesn’t feel it anywhere in the book because sex is disconnected from love and partnership.

Richardson still has dreams, even when she’s drugged out and working as a prostitute for pimp #3, Mack. They plan to save enough money to open a legitimate jewelry store, and it makes sense to her 19-year-old mind (139). But not much later, Richardson is stabbed while escorting a trick (158). It’s hard to read about the author nearly getting herself killed, and later almost abducted by a serial murderer/rapist (170), but juxtaposed with her dreams, the whole story created sympathy in me. This is a woman who was broken as a girl, and she has no idea how to fix it.


I definitely had a lot I wanted to remember as I was reading so I could talk about it later.

Almost all of PHD to Ph.D. is written in various dialects. I love the authenticity this adds to the story. For instance, the black community in Cleveland makes fun of people who aren’t from the city, and readers get a great dose of dialect: “Dat county ass nigga got dem big ass white wall tires, dat funny ass cucaracha horn and got da nerve to have air shocks on that raggedy ass green car. Dat’s a country muthafucka right dere” (20). Some people in the book use more slang that others; not every sentence is written like the previous example. Remember, Richardson’s mother is Jamaican: “Mi ago kill yuh. Yuh nuh want nuttin from life? Before I mek a dutty nigga ruin yah life, mi will kill yuh mi-self and walk downtown and tell the dyam police is mi kill yuh” (75). Richarson’s grad school advisor, also a black woman, tells her, “You have to stay in da library. You have to know the field like the back of your hand. Knowwhatumsayin? You cain’t sing upon dis Ph.D. You have to read, write and research up on dis bad boy” (233). By getting how people talk and think in those people’s own words, Richardson gives voices to those who are often told they’re wrong. Black folks in the book, from the educated to the illiterate, have a voice they’re told is “wrong” because it doesn’t sound white.

Getting back into college after drugs and turning tricks happens quickly; in fact, I have to comb through my memory to remember how she got herself clean, into support groups, and to Cleveland State University. Everything about Richardson as a girl and later prostitute made me a compulsive reader. I couldn’t put this book down! But everything about school seems rushed and not as clearly thought out. Indeed, she goes to college on page 192, but the book is only 251 total pages. Things start out interestingly; Richardson is told she needs a lot of help with her writing and is sent to the writing center. The professors and tutors are all white, and they can’t figure out what to make of this black woman’s voice, which is especially insulting because her first paper is about her own neighborhood. The tutor keeps asking, “Whadidya mean to say here?” (197). Richardson writes, “I looked her dead in the eyes and said, ‘I meant what I said'” (197). There’s a great exchange here; basically, the tutor has her own nasally Midwestern sound, but she gets to judge the author because Richardson doesn’t sound white. This is a fantastic, enlightening scene.

The rest of the college section is rushed, though. She flies through her bachelors, masters, and PhD. She gets a teaching job at a university. She moves to another university. She studies the value of black voices and argues they are not “incorrect” or “wrong,” that closed-minded white tutors and professors “didn’t see who we were or where we came from as an important part of the educational process” (201). I wanted to know so much more here. There isn’t nearly as much detail or specific anecdotes told about her time in school as there was from when she was a prostitute.

This is the biggest flaw of the book. I wish there were two books: one for the first part of her life, and one for the transition into school and the process of earning degrees. I wanted to read about her encounters with teachers, peers, tutors, and even her co-workers and students when she starts to teach. There are a couple of instances, but not nearly enough. After Richardson gets that first college paper back with a D, she talks to another student, a black man who is also older. He says, “This chump don’t know nothin about Black folks. I was using Manchild in the Promised Land as my model, and he was trippin, crossin out every other word! These lil tutors in here, too. Please! I ain’t even worried about it, sis. I got a wife and a family. My wife takes classes at night. We just need they little degrees so we can do what we got to do to take care of ourselves. Knowwhatumsayin?” (200). I love this encounter! It’s as if Richardson and this man are in on a secret about some “system” or “game” that is college.

Despite its too-speedy ending, I highly recommend PHD to Ph.D. You can read more about the book and Dr. E on her website.

Elaine Richardson

Dr. Richardson did sing a bit at the conference I attended. She also writes poetry and studies hip hop with her students.

Don’t Kiss Me

Don’t Kiss Me

dont kiss me hunter.jpgDon’t Kiss Me by Lindsay Hunter
FSG Originals, 2013
192 pages

Lindsay Hunter’s second collection was eagerly awaited by those her read her first collection, Daddy’s. Her author antics are hard to forget, and she’s been called someone to watch. She’s back in Don’t Kiss Me with 26 new stories, most of them from the point of view of, or about, young women. Even when I thought a character was in trouble or messed up, Hunter made the character appear surer than me, stronger than me. How did she do that?

Some of Hunter’s strength came out in her ability to change one word and scare the crap out of me. The “we” (instead of “I”) from “RV People” become menacing. There are no individuals, only a mass that crashes in waves over newcomers to the RV. When “we” picks up a woman with a baby, “We take her baby from her, we pass it forward, we rock it in our arms.” Our arms removes the individual and turns people something monstrous, like a demon (or tarantula?). Perhaps “we” will feed upon this baby…but in a twist, “we” feeds upon the mother instead. The whole story felt like realizing there is a hair in your mouth…and finding that it is your hair…and then trying to pull it out and realizing you’ve swallowed most of it…and as your hair comes out of your throat, you find food still attached to the hair.

Hunter’s voice was consistent despite changes in narrator, which made me curious, but the slow drawl of each voice and the use of bad grammar lulled me into a familiar place, one I thought filled with simple people. Hunter crafts characters who say things like, “They’s biscuits and jam and shit in the kitchen, help yeself.” But I never knew of what those simple folks were capable. I realized one young female character’s attitude reflects the direction in which Hunter’s stories go: “Just think something up and then do it. That’s all.” Just as the motto works for the young woman, it works with Hunter, too.

One of the best stories, notably so for it’s style, voice, and it’s up and up and up anxiety-factor is “Birthday Luncheon.” One long run-on sentence, the story begins with the narrator’s brother’s pregnant girlfriend grinding on a food table and raises in intensity when we realize the guest of honor, the father of the narrator, is racist–in fact, vile. But in this very short piece, Hunter made me laugh, as if I were witness to this horrible cluster-fuck of a party. Imagine this: “…they was a pair, your daddy in his wheelchair and your step-aunt in her scooter, your brother told you they just rammed wheels and tallied that up as sex, the jostling was was enough…” Hunter chooses her words carefully; notice how using incorrect subject/verb makes the tone of the piece read like chronic black-bottomed bare feet. There’s just something deliciously nasty there.

Prepare to read Hunter’s collection with a bit of attitude before you get going. Prepare to walk over her words as if they are shards of glass. Prepare to get lost in the wilderness. Prepare to be unprepared.

This One Summer


This One Summer coverTitle: This One Summer

Writer: Mariko Tamaki

Illustrator: Jillian Tamaki

Published: by First Second in 2014

This One Summer is the story of fifteen-year-old Rose heading to Awago Beach for summer vacation, just like they do every single year. Rose meets up with her summer vacation friend, Windy, who is a year-and-one-half younger. But trouble starts brewing when Rose sees her parents argue and pull apart from each other. Though it seems strange to have everything resolved by the time the vacation is over, This One Summer uses many common events adolescent girls will experience to navigate growing up to relate to the audience.

One key aspect of This one Summer that makes it so good is that Mariko Tamaki is able to capture accurately what it’s like to be an adolescent girl. Right away, Rose develops a sort-of crush on the boy who works at the local convenience store. It’s one of those rustic shops near beach vacation spots that have everything from marshmallows to DVD rentals–anything vacationers would require. That boy–“The Dud”–randomly nicknames Rose “blondie,” a highly unimaginative choice. Yet, Rose’s face lights up and blushes at “The Dud’s” remark.

Readers may question why Rose would have any feelings for “The Dud.” He seems pretty typical for an eighteen-year-old boy, and even a bit unmotivated. Rose never flirts with him, nor does she make an effort to get to know more about him. Yet there is that category of good girl who knows that she has a little crush but is too shy to do anything about it. Rose behaves like a regular adolescent girl when she makes excuses to get things from the convenience store just to see this boy who paid her a small bit of attention.

The Tamaki cousins also accurately represent adolescent girls by carefully choosing what activities the girls do. To distract each other from a difficult topic, Rose and Windy decide to play M.A.S.H., a game every young girl has played. Players ask fate if they get to live in a Mansion, Apartment, Shed, or House, and to whom they are married, and how many kids they have. Rose chooses the president, Justin Bieber, and Mitch (a.k.a. “The Dud”) as her potential life mate, so including “The Dud” is another insight into her feelings for the older boy. When they aren’t playing games, the girls can be found renting R-rated horror movies, a sign that they want to be grown up, but which demonstrates that they can’t really handle the screaming, slashing, and blood squirting.

In their younger teenage years, girls want to grow up, but they may not be fully prepared to handle their choices. Watching scary movies is one thing, but paying attention to older teenage girls is another. Rose and Windy watch as the local girls, who are around eighteen, flirt openly with the boys at the convenience store, which of course makes Rose jealous. Rose decides older teen girls are so dumb that she calls them “drunks” and “sluts.” Really, Rose isn’t sure of what she’s saying, but she’s trying to understand older teen girls to figure out why she’s different from them. Watching older girls has long been a big part of learning for adolescent girls. This is not to say that older teens are the pinnacle of intelligence. Rose and Windy accidentally overhear an older girl ask her friend, “Hey, Sarah, was it you who said that sperm can live, for like, three weeks in your stomach?”

Since Mariko Tamaki writes teen girls so well, it’s important that Jillian Tamaki illustrate in a way that complements the words. Each character is very specific looking, meaning that they’re easy to identify. While some graphic novels make characters less detailed, which allows readers to insert themselves into the story, the people in This One Summer are not meant to be anyone. Many of the images are highly detailed:

Uncle Daniel Tamaki

Uncle Daniel

The beautiful detail in the drawing makes This One Summer almost read like snapshots in a photo album of a lovely vacation.

Yet, Jillian Tamaki is an artist with many styles, and readers will notice that some other styles slip into the graphic novel. Windy and Rose, most noticeably, often border on a manga look:

Manga Windy Tamaki.png

Windy with exaggerated features, but no distinct mouth.

Manga Rose Tamaki

More exaggerated features, such as the mouth, but Rose doesn’t have the meticulous features of Uncle Daniel’s picture.

I was a bit confused about why Jillian Tamaki would chose to lean toward a manga style in some of her pictures when she is so capable of drawing realistically, like she does with Uncle Daniel. It might be that since Rose and Windy are drawn the most often in the book, Tamaki chose a simpler image for time’s sake. It might also be that we’re meant to insert ourselves into Windy’s or Rose’s characters, since the book is about adolescent girlhood. The less specific the face, the more likely readers are to see themselves in the character.

Despite my puzzlement over the manga style, I found all of the illustrations of the characters appealing. Windy is especially adorable. I was worried that her 18 month age difference from Rose meant this would be a story about Rose outgrowing Windy, but the girls challenge and enrich each other. Windy is constantly eating and drinking soda like a thirteen-year-old girl, and she’s not afraid to dance in a way that makes me love her:

Windy Dancing Tamaki 2.png

Windy dancing takes up two full pages. Her enthusiasm for fun is infectious.

Jillian Tamaki does just do people well; she’s also brilliant when it comes to scenery. She incorporates grass, water, siding on the houses, trees, and beach sand, all in great detail. Furthermore, J. Tamaki makes use of space in a way that makes This One Summer seem expansive to the point of never ending:


Rose thinks about her family’s problems on the left while Windy run towards the blue stormy-looking mass on the right. Notice that my other images don’t have this deep bluish tint. This One Summer appears to have two editions: one in the blue and one without.

This two-page image can be twisted and turned in different directions: the lake on the bottom, the lake being in front of the girls, the lake on top looking like an ominous cloud that matches Rose’s concerns noted on the side.

Another thing Jillian Tamaki does that I don’t see as much in other graphic novels is she adds lots of little words in her images, just bits of onomatopoeia. In some scenes, the words simply made the image more dynamic in an otherwise wordless part of the story, like when Rose’s dad is on the grill and Rose is taking photographs:

Words and Images Tamaki.png

Sound effects everywhere!

Readers may wonder why they need these words. Isn’t it obvious that a grill sizzles and a camera clicks? But, on pages that have no dialogue or thought captions, the words give the reader with which to engage and view the scene as active, as in something is taking place and these characters are truly moving around. In other places, the onomatopoeia helped me understand what was happening, like this scene with “The Dud” and his bike:

The Dud Tamaki

The Dud carelessly dumps his bike on the ground.

Because he’s texting and biking, and Rose is also biking while holding an object, I thought at first that the distracted bicyclists crashed. However, the small “DUMP” by boy’s front tire made me realize that I was supposed to see him as a careless kid who doesn’t take care of his things. Instead of putting down the kickstand, which would keep his bike out of the filth, he just dumps it on the ground and leaves it–a clear sign that he doesn’t care about much, which is part of his personality.

Though This One Summer is a slice-of-life story that takes place over about ten days, it is full in the way that it captures the entirety of the difficulties of being a teenager. This One Summer took me back to my younger teenage years. I could relate to the difficulties that Rose faced when her parents argued the whole vacation and the isolation she experienced as a result. Some of what Rose thought she knew was changed as she watched different scenarios between her parents or the older teens, or even discussions with Windy, unfold to prove her preconceived notions wrong.


Zombie Days, Campfire Nights

Zombie Days, Campfire Nights
Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

I’m always trying to keep up with content here at Grab the Lapels. A review per week is my goal, and when the mid-semester grading load gets heavy, I usually switch over to graphic novels by folks who identify as women. I love them; I love graphic novels. Yet, for Halloween I wanted to deliver on a scary tale for you. I watched Night of the Living Dead (1968) and thought about how scared Barbara was, and how grossed out viewers must have been watching those zombies eat what are obviously turkey legs and deli sausage. But zombie stories aren’t about the dead; they’re about human nature and how the living continue their days. Directors and writers like to have rules for zombies, though. George A. Romero once said that zombies cannot run because they are decaying flesh. No one is speedy when they’re rotting! Then again, those zombies in Night of the Living Dead use tools. It’s going to be inconsistent when you’re making it all up.

Zombie DaysLeah Rhyne’s novel Zombie Days, Campfire Nights (MuseItUp Publishing, 2012) is the first in the Undead America trilogy. In the first novel, three story lines are followed, though the biggest focus is on Jenna Price. She’s a teenager who believes losing her virginity is what caused the zombie apocalypse (I know—teenagers, right? So dramatic!). There are familiar tropes in this novel: family members trying to reach each other, power-hungry bad guys, sad deaths, and cannibalism. There is a city set up in New Orleans, and all roads lead there, whether the characters want them to or not. The guys inside, including front man Chase Franklin, control the fuel, electricity, and have a zombie vaccine. If you’ve seen or read The Walking Dead, things are, of course, not as peaceful as they seem.

There will be comparisons to The Walking Dead—young lovers separated from each other, parents separated from children. Chase Franklin is like the governor. And the “all roads point to ____” reminded me of Terminus. When Sam, from another story line, is forced to work with a group organized like the military despite his reservations, I was reminded of 28 Days Later. There is always a man with a gun who controls others for their own good (he thinks). Honestly, I expected all these things. Zombies have been done so much that you can’t get around comparisons, and naturally readers are going to make them. If you like zombies, just enjoy the story and look for the differences.

Jenna’s a bit different. She’s in high school, so her thinking and strategies often go to high school lessons, like comparing zombies to TB patients described in AP English class, trying de-stressing techniques learned in health class, and her friend Michael knowing what baseball bat to use because Michael worked in a sporting goods store after school. Jenna’s descriptions are appropriately juvenile, too: “He groaned. He lurched. He zombied.”

When Jenna and Michael see the announcement on TV that Chase Franklin is offering salvation, they respond appropriately for their age:

Michael looked back at me, his eyes wide. “What the fuck…”

“That?” I’d started to giggle. “That was Chase Franklin, of course. Didn’t you hear him?”

We both burst out laughing and Michael threw a pillow at my head. Still laughing, Michael said, “But seriously, what the hell is a Chase Franklin?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “A guy with too much makeup on? An Oompa Loompa [referring to Chase’s orange skin tone due to makeup] who wants to take over the world? If you ask me, he can have it.”

Another difference with Leah Rhyne’s novel is how much emphasis she places on smell. Living people without running water stink. They never advertise that fact in The Walking Dead show. Isn’t Maggie just the sexiest? Zombies smell, too. Sure, zombies ooze black goo, which gets repetitive and is too common a description, but the smells that choke the characters are a reminder that everyone who isn’t alive is, uh, dead. And decaying skin smells. BAD.

Lauren Cohan as Maggie Greene - The Walking Dead _ Season 5, Gallery - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Lauren Cohan as Maggie Greene – The Walking Dead _ Season 5, Gallery – Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

One thing that confused me was the way the story seemed to be told from the future. For instance, in the third story line, told by Lola, she is dragged from her apartment to safety by her domineering (and violent) brother. As they leave, she thinks, “It turned out to be the last time I’d ever see [my apartment].” Now, how does she know that unless the story is told from a future perspective? And why include this moment of reflection when it happens so rarely elsewhere in the novel? I wondered if this was a slip in the perspective, and if it wasn’t, there needed to be more reflection. Here’s a a strange comparison: in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm often points out how he worshipped his religious leader, but would one day (see, Malcolm’s in the future looking back) be let down by him, causing a spiritual crisis. He describes his hustler days in past tense, then adds that the only reason he didn’t die a Hustler in Harlem is because Allah was looking out for him (present-day Malcolm is religious; hustler Malcolm was not). Such reflections are sprinkled throughout the autobiography, not just 2-3 times in the whole book.

All in all, I enjoyed Zombie Days, Campfire Nights. It doesn’t bring anything new to the zombie genre, but it is a fun romp through the land of the undead that is sure to satisfy any fan of horror.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened
Hamlet von Schnitzel, actual taxidermy mouse the author owns.

Hamlet von Schnitzel, actual taxidermic mouse the author owns.

Jenny Lawson’s newest memoir, Furiously Happy, was published this past September. I saw the cover with the crazy raccoon all over the advertisements on Goodreads. So, I looked up Lawson, who already has a tremendous following, originally the result of her blog, but also from the success her first memoir, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir). I wanted to read the new raccoon book, but I figured that I had to start at the beginning and picked up Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (2012, Penguin Books).

Lawson grew up in a tiny town in Texas with her younger sister, lunch lady mother, and taxidermist father. Living in relative poverty and having a father who constantly brings home animals, both dead and alive, makes for an influential childhood. Then, Lawson meets a college student in a book store named Victor, who is from a wealthy family, and the two marry. After much heartbreak, Victor and Lawson have a child named Hailey, and they live happily ever after in Texas. The end.

Sort of.

Except that Lawson has this way of exaggerating common situations. Except, she also has experiences that are highly unusual to those who grew up with enough money to not wear bread bags filled with newspaper inside their shoes in the winter. Except, Lawson also has severe anxiety that causes her to ramble, panic, and say exactly what she’s thinking, even if it’s telling her husband’s co-workers that she was stabbed by a chicken. And it’s all these “except”s that make her so damn interesting.

Lawson’s clarifications throughout the book will bother some readers, but I found it spastic and fun. Right away, she starts clarifying what she means:

Also, I just want to clarify that I don’t mean “without my vagina” like I didn’t have it with me at the time. I just meant that I wasn’t, you know … displaying it while I was at Starbuck’s. That’s probably understood, but I should clarify, since it’s the first chapter and you don’t know that much about me. So just to clarify, I always have my vagina with me. It’s like my American Express card. (In that I don’t leave home without it. Not that I use it to buy stuff with.)

The entirety of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened isn’t so circumnavigated, and Lawson’s splashes of silliness make the book light when some stories are terribly serious in content.

There are, however, serious topics that are mentioned and then fade away, and I hope the author addresses these issues in Furiously Happy. Lawson mentions she’s anorexic, but abandons the topic quickly, whereas later she devotes more than a page to a hypothetical huge labia. In the last paragraph of a chapter, Lawson has and then corrects her anorexia. In this scene, Lawson and Victor are newlyweds:

Still, I felt sorry for Victor, because he did know that I was kind of mentally ill, but he also thought I was naturally thin, so he was kind of expecting “crazy,” but I think he was expecting hot, sexy crazy. Then Victor insisted I start seeing the college shrink, who coaxed me away from the anorexia, and I immediately gained thirty pounds, which was very healthy, but which seemed not hot at all. Also, I suddenly stated eating solid food, so I cost a lot more than Victor had originally expected.

Lawson also describes her and Victor’s wedding, which was incredibly cheap, including the Sears wedding photo. The author had previously shared how wealthy Victor’s family was and that an actual wedding (not a court house contract signing), and I wondered why some information is dropped in my lap and left to sit.

The majority of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is humor-driven, though. During a lunch break, Lawson’s co-worker mentions he saw a documentary about a woman whose top half was normal, but her bottom half was “enormous.” Lawson’s train of thought is both funny and creative:

…My God. I bet her labia is huge….If I were her, I’d roll it up with binder clips. Or foam curlers. And then on special occasions she lets it out of the curlers and bingo: spiral perm. Totally ready for prom….If you got attacked you could throw it on someone to swat them back, or you could catch children jumping out of burning buildings….You could put a lantern behind it and make shadow puppets.

Meanwhile, the coworker is getting angry because he’s brought a tuna sandwich to work that day, and Lawson works in Human Resources, adding a new level of inappropriate to the situation.

Some of the stories truly are not remarkable, but it’s all in the telling. The chapter entitled “Stabbed by Chicken” gets your brain thinking the worse, but by the end readers learn that Lawson’s dog accidentally tripped her and she cut herself on the dried chicken jerky she wanted to feed him. In the telling of the story, though, everything is disastrous, life-or-death, and hilarious. In truth, the humor is the build up of each story as opposed to one-liners, and Lawson’s funny bits are pretty much too long to quote to give you a good example. This is why you have to read the book yourself.

Several times, Lawson pins her fears on the zombie apocalypse or chupacabras. I couldn’t tell if the author was genuinely afraid of these fictitious creatures, or if she was using zombies because they’re in vogue. Again, I wanted more conscientious digging into her fears to determine what’s going on with her mentally, and if she truly is terrified of said creatures.

Rory, the taxidermic raccoon, who I am told fell in with a bad crowd. We'll see in book two!

Rory, the taxidermic raccoon, who I am told fell in with a bad crowd. We’ll see in book two!

Lawson does work to make sure you believe her. She has photographic evidence. The photos, however, are pretty small, and all are in shades of grey. In several, I couldn’t distinguish the different parts from lack of color, and I wanted Penguin Group to pony up the dough for color photos. Then again, I can see how that would increase the cost of the book, and most likely the pictures wouldn’t appear in the right places to serve as evidence (most publishers use special shiny paper and put all the color photos somewhere in the middle of the book, which makes no sense when you see people the book hasn’t discussed yet, but also images that would have been relevant 100 pages ago).

In the end, I found myself eager to return to Lawson’s life, and I appreciated that she kept the focus of the book on her. As soon as she had a baby, I worried Let’s Pretend This Never Happened would turn into one of those books about how funny moms think their kids are. It didn’t. *Whew* I caught myself laughing out loud many times, much to my own embarrassment, and became vigilant about reading away from public places. Totally recommend.

This book was procured from the public library. I have zero relationship with the author, and all thoughts are my own. Please keep an eye out for my forthcoming review of Furiously Happy!

Who Am I?


Who Am IWho Am I? How My Daughter Taught Me to Let Go and Live Again is a memoir by Megan Cyrulewski (Black Opal Books, 2014). In her book, Cyrulewski details meeting Tyler, a man with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (Cyrulewski diagnoses him herself), marrying him, and having his child. Cyrulewski moves out of her home two weeks after their daughter, Madelyne, is born and into her parents’ house. Tyler verbally abuses Cyrulewski, calling her crazy, a joke, and says she is incapable of caring for herself because she always runs to “mommy and daddy.” The majority of Who Am I? describes all the drama that ensues. The book includes word-for-word emails and texts messages from Tyler, Cyrulewski, attorneys, and Tyler’s new wife, Heather, and cites some passages from a textbook about mental health.

The purpose of Who Am I? is not clear to me. Based on the title, I thought this book would be about Cyrulewski’s life with her daughter, but Madelyne is so young (she’s 3 at the end of the memoir) that I don’t see how Cyrulewski had a relationship with her daughter that shaped her. She only seemed molded by her responses to Tyler’s outbursts, mockery, and lies. I’m not sure at what point the author “lets go” to “live again.” We see almost none of Cyrulewski’s life before Tyler, so I’m not sure how she lived before she met him. In her acknowledgments section, she apologizes to her parents for her rebellious teen years. What kind of person was she, and how did she change, I frequently asked myself.

The tone of Cyrulewski’s memoir was one that irritated me. I constantly felt like we were best friends and Cyrulewski wanted gab my ear off to get her side of the story out before Tyler could says his, something that would corrupt how people saw her. Meanwhile, I’m meant to just sit and ingest her problems while she gives me nothing emotionally nourishing in return for having listened. The writing itself is very talkative and defensive, so on the one hand, if you like having a friend with dramatic events constantly occurring, then this book is for you. On the other hand, if all the drama drains you emotionally, if you wish the person talking would use reason instead of feelings to navigate her life, then this book will wear you out, like it did me. When Tyler writes an e-mail to Cyrulewski making several claims, she writes back to him and refutes his points, one by one. She writes:

And don’t EVER judge how I am raising my daughter saying things like I’m punishing Madelyne. At least I’ve been there for her 24/7. Where the fuck have you been? Oh yeah, playing games and writing “poor me” letters to Charlotte [a court employee]. You will never EVER understand that when you are a parent, your child comes first because the world revolves around Tyler and it always will. Madelyne is so smart that she is going to see through your bullshit when she gets older. Don’t be surprised if she doesn’t want a relationship with YOU because of your temper, narcissism, and the way you bullshit ALL the time.

This is the last of six paragraphs. I could hear Cyrulewski in my head. I could hear the same arguments I’ve heard over and over from parents who argue about what it means to be a parent, who make threats. I couldn’t help but think the author was terribly juvenile at times. I would image her as a young 20-something based on her commentary. During a supervised visit, Adam, the director of the facility where Cyrulewski and Tyler meet, asks her questions. Cyrulewski doesn’t like his questions. Adam says, “I know Tyler wants to see his daughter.” The next line reads, “Yeah, Adam. You’re right, I thought to myself. You know everything about your new best friend Tyler, don’t you?” Despite her situation, Cyrulewski is suspicious, childish, and emotionally exhausting. The author is not a girl; at this point Cyrulewski is in her mid-30s and attending law school, but she’s still hurling insults via text back and forth with Tyler and his “white trash” new wife while in class. I kept thinking, “JUST. STOP. ALREADY.” Cyrulewski mentions that once Tyler is out of her life she can finally stop checking her email 100 times (her number, not mine) per day. Why check? Why seek out problematic situations?

While it’s clear that Tyler is emotionally abusive and Cyrulewski is the victim, a good memoir needs to read like something more than a chat session. It needs to be introspective; there’s none of that here, which left tons of space for me to just dislike the author’s story and the person she is in it. Cyrulewski details events like she’s trying to make a journal log of sorts as evidence. The whole book is about evidence: emails, video, getting out the correct story first. It’s a race really: Cyrulewski vs. Tyler. Even though Cyrulewski had anxiety issues before she met Tyler, even though she ends up in a psych ward 3 times, readers don’t get to see what happened there, how Cyrulewski processed her feelings, or how she felt when Tyler abused her. She asks again and again why she married Tyler because he was so obviously abusive, but she can’t fully answer, nor does she look back and see how perhaps she got to her current situation. Instead of digging deep, the author spews out how she literally responded to Tyler instead.

The ending makes at attempt to explain what this memoir was about. Cyrulewski adds:

I think there is still a nasty stigma attached to PPD [postpartum depression] and that is why women are still afraid to admit that they might be suffering from it. I think a woman who seeks help for PPD is extremely brave and is stronger than she might realize. It takes an extraordinary amount of courage to admit that something isn’t right about the way you feel toward your baby.

For me, the last attempt to add some meaning to Who Am I? was too little, too late. Cyrulewski finally ends up with who she is–Madelyne’s mother–but the road to becoming a mother is littered with Tyler stories that there was no room in the book for what kind of mother she is when she is with her daughter (playing, feeding, anything). There are important issues broached within the pages: verbal abuse, PPD, and not understand how a typically smart person becomes a victim. Yet, the topics aren’t as carefully handled as they need to be to make an impact on readers, as events alone just aren’t enough. The book was one I was happy to finish so that I could move on and escape its reality TV-like self-creating drama.

*I want to thank Megan Cyrulewski for sending me a copy of Who Am I? How My Daughter Taught Me to Let Go and Live Again for review at Grab the Lapels in exchange for an honest opinion.