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Fat Girl, Terrestrial #readwomen #bookreview @FCtwo

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Fat Girl, Terrestrial #readwomen #bookreview @FCtwo

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

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

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

Fat Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher #20BooksofSummer #LGBT @KensingtonBooks #ReadWomen

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Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher #20BooksofSummer #LGBT @KensingtonBooks #ReadWomen

Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher (Lesbian Career Girl Series #2) by Monica Nolan

published by Kensington Books, 2010

I eagerly jumped into my second Monica Nolan book! Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary was a delight to read, though sometimes it felt just a tad silly. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher felt more grown up, in a way, because she knows she’s a lesbian. Lois Lenz took 80% of the novel to figure it out (despite making out with women through the whole thing). Thus, I enjoyed Bobby Blanchard’s story a great deal more. Mind you, you don’t have to read Lois Lenz first. However, I would recommend that you read the books in order (there are 4 lesbian career girl novels) for maximum enjoyment.

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It’s 1964 and we learn that Bobby Blanchard is a field hockey player. She played in high school and college, but then a stupid accident causes her to break a bone, leaving her unable to go pro. Now what does she do? Going pro was her whole plan, despite majoring in teaching in college. Miss Watkins, a guidance counselor (who was the guidance counselor in Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary) visits Bobby in the hospital and reminds the sad athlete of her teaching credentials — and says there is an opening for a gym teacher at Metamora Academy for girls! (By the way: Bobby and Lois did not go to the same high school, so Miss Watkins is a bit like a guardian angel guidance counselor for lesbians, which I find funny).

Bobby has concerns about being a teacher, though:

“But my grades — my brains –” Bobby struggled to express herself. “A teacher has to be smart.” How she’d sweated over those lesson plan assignments in Pedagogy II, how lost she’d felt when the class discussed the pros and cons of module-based teaching!

But off to Metamora she goes. I’m not sure if all academies have the same labels, but instead of “gym teacher,” Bobby is the “Games Mistress.” Instead of grade levels, like 9th or freshman, the girls are “formers,” as in “4th formers.” I could never keep track of what each form meant, which made it hard to image the students’ ages. The alternative titles were something I did not enjoy.

Miss Watkins, the guidance counselor, almost never gets it wrong when she advises young lesbians! But not all the Metamora faculty are that excited by newbie Bobby, especially the new Math Mistress, Enid:

“And when you teach something as basic as gym, you can always tell them to do laps when you run out of material. . . .That’s what my high school gym teacher used to do.”

How insulting to Bobby! Author Monica Nolan seems to enjoy writing the prim, snippy, librarian-type. In Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary it was Netta Bean. In Bobby’s world, it’s Enid. When there is always a know-it-all with a secret and a grudge in Nolan’s novels, readers can predict that the librarian may let her hair down and whip off her glasses for some between-the-sheets fun. Sometimes, the stereotype helps with expectations, and Nolan uses the sexy librarian stereotype beautifully.

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Another distinct aspect of the world Nolan created is that everyone is lesbian, gay, or bisexual. You can guarantee that married or not, man or woman, teenager or adult, everyone is (note that very few men appear in Nolan’s novels). Nolan doesn’t make her character’s sexuality much of a secret, either, which is interesting. You just keep reading and become part of a world in which no one is straight, and it all is perfectly normal. You don’t have to wonder who’s point of view is the focus; it’s the titular character, and she’s a lesbian who doesn’t feel shame. I still remember Lois Lenz declaring, “I’m a lesbian career girl, too!” and feeling very excited about such a world.

Nolan does add a lot of subplots and points of contention to keep the story going like a mystery novel. When the mystery was solved at the end of Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary, I thought it was a bit silly. Some subplots circling Bobby’s life are:

  • How to integrate “Angle,” a frustrated teen with divorced parents who are of different faiths, with the other girls.
  • The Headmistress whose lover fell (or jumped!) from the tower last term and was killed.
  • The new field hockey team with most inexperienced players that Bobby put together at Metamora that keeps winning — because terrible “accidents” happen to the other teams’ players.
  • The ghost on the glowing bicycle.
  • Who stole one of the girl’s beloved locket.
  • A student who keeps buying Ouiji boards to summon the dead.

There’s a lot to take in! I’m not sure why Nolan heaps it on, but she did in both Lois Lenz and Bobby Blanchard. Piling on subplots was something I noticed in the mystery novel Terror in Taffeta. I want to call the Lesbian Career Girls series “cozy mysteries.” There is sex, but it’s mostly off page. There is almost zero violence. Things are wrapped up happily in the end. Perhaps plenty of subplots to misdirect readers is a key ingredient of a cozy mystery, one that other readers will appreciate more than I did. On a positive note, the books aren’t about the mystery, though; it’s about watching the main character develop into a stronger woman (YES!).

Most notably, Bobby Blanchard is just plain fun and funny. She’s always using sports metaphors to explain her feelings about other women. Early in the book Bobby meets up with her girlfriend, Elaine, a young woman who refuses to be seen in public with Bobby. Elaine wants to marry a boy so her father, who has lots of money, will stop threatening to send Elaine to college if she won’t get hitched (Elaine loves being lazy and having money). In reality, Elaine says, she will keep sneaking off to have sex with Bobby and marry some guy with even more money! The gym teacher let’s her have it:

“You may not be off the team, but your team loyalty is certainly in question!” Bobby responded hotly.

Elaine’s temper, never placid, began to fray. “Maybe I need a more competent coach,” she shot back. “One who understands the point of the game!”

“What are you saying?” demanded Bobby indignantly. “Are you implying my ball-handing skills are slipping? Why, I taught you everything you know! Your technique, your wide knowledge of plays…”

Keep in mind, they’re talking about whether or not Elaine is a traitor to lesbians, and if Bobby is sexually experienced enough. The metaphor goes on for just long enough to have any reader in stitches!

Furthermore, Nolan includes other bi-sexual women in the book who want Bobby in bed but not public, giving the reader serious food for thought. There is no shame in the characters regarding their sexuality, but the 1964 setting means society may have something to say about two women (and at one point there is a raid on a lesbian bar). Society is never one character; it’s a presence, though, allowing Nolan to overlap her imagined world and reality. In a way, Nolan asks the reader to consider her attitude toward LGBT couples — and not just feeling liberal, but actually seeing LGBT couples in public and not making untoward comments.

Monica Nolan does some fun world building when Miss Watkins, the guidance counselor from the beginning of the book, runs into Bobby while she is with Netta Bean, one of the main characters of Lois Lenz! Netta is a teacher, too, so she tries to help Bobby feel better about yelling unreasonably at her students by sharing some mistakes she’s made, including when she “failed to take a student’s threat to the assassinate the principal seriously.” The author keeps the characters just over-the-top to move you to gently snort with laughter. And the cross-over of the author’s novels is such a delight to read! I feel like I’ve run into an old friend, since I learned so much about Netta before.

Bobby Blanchard is an enjoyable read, one that I was happier to pick up and read to my husband each night than Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary. Beware: Bobby’s story is definitely more risque: she knows she’s a lesbian, she is promiscuous, and at one point has a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old student (legal, but questionable ethically). Overall, though, a great, fun book!

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#20BooksofSummer

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

Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. 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 Review on Goodreads, as Grab the Lapels is a ladies only site! 🙂 I had to read Fluke earlier than I originally planned because book club was 8/28. *Rilla of Ingleside is still coming!*

Only Ever Yours #bookreview #readwomen #YAlit

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Only Ever Yours #bookreview #readwomen #YAlit

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

published by Quercus in 2015

procured from the library

At a chunky 406 pages, Only Ever Yours is longer than I usually like to read for Grab the Lapels. However, in a search for friendship, I found a book club in my area advertised online. I was in luck; their next meeting would be 9 days later, and many of the books they had read, such as Furiously Happy and Between the World and Me, I had read too. The library, I discovered, kept O’Neill in the Teen section, which is when it dawned on me that Only Ever Yours is a young adult book. What’s the big beef, you might ask? While I don’t condemn young adult literature, I find that most of it takes societal problems and makes the issue so obvious that the book feels like a JUST SAY NO campaign. Why read YA when I can get my hands on the more nuanced adult versions? I know that YA is often an issue of sellers labeling a book a certain way, but when there are billions of book choices, I’m not really willing to take the chance.

Basically, without my new book club, I would not have picked up Louise O’Neill’s novel.

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This was the cover of my library copy

Only Ever Yours is a dystopian book about women and girls (called eves). They are genetically modified and hatched in a school for the use of men and boys (called Inheritants). These girls are brainwashed through propaganda for 16 years to follow mantras, like “I am pretty. I am a good girl. I always do as I am told” and “I am happy-go-lucky” and “I am appealing to others. I am always agreeable.” Whether they become a wife who bears sons, a concubine, or an unsexed teacher in the girls’ training school, they are told to be grateful that they weren’t naturally born and conceived, because girl babies are thrown in graves. Girls and women are property, totally at the disposal of a man’s desire to procreate or get off. The unsexed school teachers are not necessary, we’re told, but they’re important because they dispense the training to be wives and concubines. Their 16th year of life, the eves are told which role they will play. Whatever a girl’s role, it is expected for boys to get married and have a lot of sex with various women.

There are rules for eves:

All eves are created to be perfect, but over time they seem to develop flaws. Comparing yourself to your sisters is a useful way of identifying these flaws, but you must then take the necessary steps to improve yourself. There is always room for improvement. — Audio Guide to the Rules for Proper female Behavior, the Original Father

The focus on Only Ever Yours is the girls about to graduate school, at age 16.  To maintain the perfect weight (about 118 lbs) they all have eating disorders aided by pills. The main character is freida, #630. Each week, she and the other eves are ranked by how attractive they are. The top ten eves are most likely to secure a wife role. While eves have zero choices, because choices mean being burned on a pyre or experimented on —  Inheritants don’t have to compete for anything, so they are spoiled, fat, greedy, and demand sex. I kept thinking this whole society is driven by the throbbing penis.

The characters in Only Ever Yours are terribly familiar. If you’ve ever been a devoted fan of the Sweet Valley Twins books like I was, you’ll remember the cast: Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, perfect size sixes, matching golden blond hair, blue-green eyes. No one can tell the twins apart, except their family and dearest friends. Only Ever Yours has Liz and Jessie, “exact replicas” with “golden-blond hair” and “aqua-colored eyes.” If you’re thinking, the eves are genetically modified…how did they get twins? then I would say, I know, right?! The only explanation seems to be that the parallel between the two books was what Louise O’Neill was going for.

Just like in Sweet Valley, Only Ever Yours has a “bossy bitch,” a girl who wants to better than everyone else. In Sweet Valley, we’re talking about Lila Fowler. In O’Neill’s novel, it’s megan. Such girls give compliments like, “You’re so brave for wearing any old thing! I admire that!”

The eves in this book are painfully annoying because all they focus on is what they look like. This is how they’ve been trained their whole lives. They’re ranked by appearance. There are mirrors everywhere. They are weighed. One person hit 125 lbs, the FATTEST anyone’s ever been!! Then, I think back to Sweet Valley. The first book, Double Love, opens with this paragraph:

“Oh, Lizzie, do you believe how horrendous I look today!” Jessica Wakefield groaned as she stepped in front of her sister, Elizabeth, and stared at herself in the bedroom mirror. “I’m so gross! Just look at me! Everything is totally wrong. To begin with, I’m disgustingly fat….” With that, she spun around to show off a stunning figure without an extra ounce visible anywhere.

double love

Double Love, September 1984

And the eves in Only Ever Yours are exactly the same way. There’s the teeter-totter of competition for prettiest, but the recognition that both concubines and wives are part of society and please men.

Honestly, I can’t tell the eves apart. freida says the eves are “almost interchangeable.” The diversity, she points out, is in “skin tone and hair color.” freida is brown, but her color is only mentioned about 4 times. At one point, frieda’s skin is compared to that of an Inheritant named Mahatma. Perhaps she’s Indian, I thought, but remembered the eves all look exactly the same. There’s no ethnicity.

But as frieda takes more and more drugs to help her sleep, she feels that she looks terrible. Is that true? I’m not sure. Like Jessica Wakefield, most eves think they look terrible (except megan). freida is our biased, brainwashed narrator. One way O’Neill tells us eves are different is by their clothes — so. many. clothes. But I don’t know kitty heels and sweetheart necklines, so it didn’t mean much. And do clothes matter on identical perfect bodies?

Half of the book is backstabbing, manipulating, and alliances created between eves. It’s catty. It’s Sweet Valley Twins galore. Girls record any tiny wrongdoing a fellow eve may commit and immediately post it on social media. I kept telling myself the author is doing this on purpose. Just go with it. It’s a brilliant choice the author made to showcase contemporary jealousy and female objectification. But, ew.

Eves are told how NOT to feel: no crying, no loving boys, no persuading boys. Eves don’t even see Inheritants until a couple of months before the big ceremony. At the ceremony 16-year-old dudes just choose 16-year-old girls to be wives based on their smokin’ hot bodies. O’Neill suggests, this just means give birth to sons and feeling superior to the concubines, who were not ranked top ten. The arrival of the boys is actually where the story gets interesting because there is less focus on hotness rankings.

The author effectively plays with the reader’s feelings. We know who the top-ten hottest eves are. But after the boys show up, eves aren’t ranked anymore. They aren’t allowed to tell the boys how they were ranked. Why? Competition kept them fit and working hard to please, perhaps? Enter Darwin: he’s the only handsome Inheritant, and the son of a judge. He’s the Bruce Patman (if you’re still following my Sweet Valley Twin comparison). Darwin shows interest in our scrappy freida — it’s like there’s some Todd Wilkins mixed in there! Hooray, I thought! Darwin can save freida! Things can turn out okay! HE’S NICE.

bruce patmantodd wilkins

Bruce Patman VS. Todd Wilkins — same person?

Um, hello? Hey, self? Yeah…since when are we interested in a boy saving a girl? And ultimately, isn’t he going to use her body to have sons while having porno relations with concubines? And isn’t he going to set her on fire when she turns 40?? And isn’t she trained to be okay with all of this??? I actually rooted for Darwin and freida for ages before my brain caught up with me. The eves are so emotionally and sexually abused (and they don’t know it) that I thought a good old-fashioned romance between teenagers was the answer. The ending of Only Ever Yours was unpredictable. It kept changing directions, which kept me interested.

If I wanted the grown-up version of this book, I could have read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But that’s not what book club picked. Despite the aspects that annoyed me — and let’s be fair; they were necessary for the story — I would recommend Only Ever Yours.

Meet the Writer: Missy Wilkinson

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Meet the Writer: Missy Wilkinson

I want to thank Missy for answering my questions! You can learn more about her at her website and over at xoJane, among other places. Missy is a journalist and novelist whose first novel, Destroying Angel, was recently published by Prizm, an imprint of Torquere Press. 
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

When I was four years old, our cocker spaniel had puppies. I was smitten with one I’d named Dearie, but my mom said we couldn’t keep her. So I wrote a moving, construction-paper saga of a girl and her puppy. I could barely pen my name at the time, and my illustration of a heart being ripped in half just looked like two blobs.

My mom didn’t let me keep Dearie. I guess I’m still trying to write a book that rewards me with a puppy’s unconditional love, or the literary equivalent.

Do you think there is a certain “achievement” a person must “unlock” before she can call herself a writer?

If you write every day (or most days), you’re a writer. It’s like with babies. They’re these little pudgy helpless caterpillars, but they see people walking and know they’re supposed to do that, too. And they struggle and fall down and get up until one day, they’re running, dancing or dribbling a soccer ball. They just keep going at it.

What’s it like to switch gears between journalism and fiction?

It’s pretty great to have the two outlets. I write fiction at my desk during downtime at the newspaper. So, when I open up my novel manuscript, it feels like I’m doing something kind of indulgent. That makes it less jarring to jump into the cold pool of a fictional world — although given the choice, I’d still prefer to dick around on the Internet. My journalism has improved my writing, too. I’m way more terse, clear and forceful. And years of writing on deadline has given me the ability to turn my writing brain off and on at a moment’s notice.

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Did you do any research for your novels?

It depends on the novel. For the first two books, Hearts in Alien Hands and Spore Girl, of the Destroying Angel series (both unpublished as of now), I draw heavily from my life experiences and the city I live in, New Orleans. The third one is partially set in 19th-century New Orleans during a yellow fever epidemic. So, I spent a lot of time in library archives reading newspapers from that era (which are really crazy…everyone’s dying, there are all these mass graves and roaming dogs feasting on corpses and it’s so post-apocalyptic, but you know everything turns out OK because here were are). I do research if the story demands it, which is a pretentious way to say I do research if it’s a question I can’t answer myself, such as, “What would you find in an 1853 pharmacy?”

People are debating whether YA novels are for everyone or for young adults (about 13-18 years). Ruth Graham of Slate said adults should be ashamed for reading it. Elisabeth Donnelly over at Flavorwire says Graham is wrong. What are your two cents?

Wow, it’s crazy that this is even a debate. Why would anyone be ashamed of reading young adult literature? It’s what we all start with, where we all fall in love with story, how we become lifelong readers. This reminds me of the time I went to see Stephen King speak. He was touring for 11/22/63. I lined up, along with hundreds of other people, to hear him talk in a church on St. Charles Avenue. His craggy humor surprised me, but not as much as the effect he had on his audience. They asked him about these fictional characters with so much concern and love, they might have been asking about their own family members. When King revealed he was working on a sequel to The Shining, the audience sucked in its breath and then released an audible ooohhh. It was like watching a kid hold a wrapped Christmas present. The master storyteller transformed his audience into children. That’s what every great story does.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing (either in journalism or your fiction)?

I have a hard time sticking to one genre. I am in the querying phase (aka hell) of a young adult/new adult series that leaps between fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction and noir. Some agents and editors have said I need to define my genre, but some say it’s OK to be a shapeshifter. It might be easier to sell and market the series if I had a clearer niche.

Fun Home

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Fun Home

 

cover fun homeFun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a graphic novel memoir by Alison Bechdel, of “Bechdel Test” fame (an idea that came from Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For). Published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 2006, Fun Home is one of the most introspective, expertly woven, and intelligent graphic novels–or memoirs in general–that I’ve ever read.

Bechdel focuses on her father, a man who obsesses over appearances, including that of his house, children, and personal clothing. The house looks like something out of a Victorian novel, and though the family isn’t “rich,” other kids think the Bechdels are because of what the author’s father is able to do with rummaging and an obsessive desire to make things look beautiful and ornamental. He also forces his children to look nice, encouraging–and then belittling for not obeying–the author for not adding feminine touches, like pearls, to what he considers a dowdy outfit. Alison Bechdel confesses that she would rather dress like a boy, and readers discover that her father would rather dress like a girl (and has). The two exchange clothing advice in a surreptitious fashion for years, living vicariously through the other.

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Opposites trying to live vicariously through the other.

Bechdel’s father is also a man with a temper, ordering his children around and fighting with his wife when she’s nearly at the end of her rope with him. Both mother and father are English teachers, and they live a life of creative endeavors. Often, the family is terribly isolated, each person in his/her own room, working on creative projects, like an artists’ commune, Bechdel notes.

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Each of the 5 family members create alone.

The father doesn’t seem loving or meant to have children, but Bechdel observes, “Sometimes, when things were going well, I think my father actually enjoyed having a family. Or at least, the air of authenticity we lent to his exhibit. A sort of still life with children.” It’s a lonely, sad, cold life. No one hugs, touches, or exhibits the vital light that typically signifies “family.”

Bechdel’s story isn’t totally chronological. Putting things out of order and going in circles worked to surprise me and engage me more deeply with Bechdel’s analysis. One surprise happens when the author reveals a death: on the left page, the father is bathing a very young Bechdel. At the top of the right page, it says, “It’s true that he didn’t kill himself until I was nearly twenty.” What a surprise! Who knew this is how the story would go! But once Bechdel says it, the memoir starts spiraling around this impending death. Getting closer and more intimate while pulling away shows the similarities between the author and her closeted father.

Due to his cold and angry personality, Bechdel seems to feel little when she learns that her father was hit by a semi-truck and that he may or may not have committed suicide. She tries to feel something, though it’s difficult because she’s grown used to death, in addition to the distance relationship with her dad. Bechdel’s family owned a funeral home (the “fun home”), so she saw many splayed open corpses.

For years after my father’s death, when the subject of parents came up in conversation I would relate the information in a flat, matter-of-fact tone….

“My dad’s dead. He jumped in front of a truck.”

…eager to detect in my listener the flinch of grief that eluded me. The emotion I had suppressed for the gaping cadaver seemed to stay suppressed. Even when it was dad himself on the prep table.

Bechdel goes deep into herself to figure out what she’s thinking and feeling and how it affects the way she behaved. Much of the graphic memoir does this type of introspection.

For example, Bechdel realized for certain at 19 that she is a lesbian. She wrote a letter to her parents, who seemed to take the news hard. Her mother also said she was at the end of her rope with Bechdel’s father, and the author, at 19-years-old, suggested they divorce, advice that the mother took. After “causing” a pending divorce and coming out, Bechdel worries she had something to do with her father’s suicide. She confirms her fear is not really founded, as the father struggled his whole life with anger, legal troubles, and being closeted, but Bechdel notes, “I’m reluctant to let go of that last, tenuous bond.” It’s touching and telling to realize that the closest Bechdel can get to her father is by assuming she had a part in his death.

Later, Bechdel remembers how her father would have young men around the house to babysit the children or do yard work. “He would cultivate these young men like orchids,” she writes, and it’s seeing these very masculine young men that leads the author to realize that she relates to them, as opposed to having a crush on them. She realizes that even as a girl, she could “sense a chink in [her] family’s armor, an undefended gap in the circle of [their] wagons which cried out, it seemed to [her], for some plain, two-fisted sinew.” Basically, Bechdel’s father is highly feminine, suggesting that there is no manly presence to protect her family, so it’s a role that Bechdel tries to foster in herself. Again, the author recognizes the psychology that shapes her choices.

Bechdel, as a result of English teacher parents, is well read and grammatically astounding. She never ends in prepositions, she ties in themes from books like Ulysses, Kate Millett’s Flying, the story of Icarus, Earthly Paradise by Colett, and Fitzgerald works. Many of the works referenced are ones I have not read, but Bechdel smoothly explains just enough of the book’s contents to make it relevant to the situation she’s comparing it to, but not so much as to insult the reader’s intelligence.

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Literary References

Another result of literary-minded parents is excellent vocabulary. I was constantly turning to a dictionary while reading Fun Home, but as someone who always wants to learn, I didn’t mind. Here are some examples of words I looked up:

  • dishabille
  • legerdemain
  • aspersions
  • prestidigitation
  • efflorescence
  • lapsarian
  • perseverated
  • bathetic
  • humectant

If you’re an impatient reader with a pretty normal vocabulary, this book is not for you.

If you’re up for a bit of a challenge though, you’ll love Fun Home. The weaving of past and present, psychology and action, is complex and reveals a person who has extracted meaning from a complicated, lonely childhood. Even better, the images as all professional looking–no cartoony images, no bright colors, no squiggly-doodly pictures.

Furiously Happy

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Furiously Happy

furiously-happyLast week, I reviewed Jenny Lawson’s first memoir, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir). Since then, my number of visitors to Grab the Lapels has increased by a lot (though I will admit someone was earnestly looking for “Steven Hawkings Wife” and found me). Like most people, I had to immediately get my hands on Lawson’s brand new memoir, Furiously Happy (Flatiron Books, Sept. 2015). On the cover, we get yet another taxidermied animal, this one named Rory. Some fans have taken to photoshopping Rory around and sharing him at #WheresRory. Honestly, I couldn’t quit calling the book FUR-iously Happy thanks to that thrilled corpse.

Last time, Lawson spent ten years composing a single memoir. This time, she got it down to somewhere around three. As a result, the stories are contemporary and do make reference to current cultural markers. Furiously Happy at times felt like commentary on what’s up with people today while remaining true to the memoir genre. Again, Lawson include fights with head-shaking husband Victor (I’m so glad they didn’t divorce; I was sure they would), and there are mentions of daughter Hailey, but Lawson respects her child’s privacy and mostly leaves Hailey out of it.

In my review of Let’s Pretend this Never Happened, I complained that Lawson mentioned huge topics (like anorexia) and then ran from them, like digging deep into a certain topic was too hard. It’s you’re going to write a memoir, though, readers are asking you to go to those hard places. And, in Furiously Happy, Lawson does. She spends much time talking about mental illness and embracing a diagnosis in a way that allows her to protect and understand herself and reach out to others. Lawson explains medicine:

The side effects and troubles with taking medication are very real and (if you have a chronic mental illness) are something you have to deal with for the rest of your life. Even if a drug is working for a while, it might stop working and you’ll have to start all over again with something new, which can be incredibly frustrating and disheartening.

Lawson also explains how mental illness is one that people don’t take seriously, which is unfair:

Clearly I wasn’t as sick as I said I was if the medication didn’t work for me. And that sort of makes sense, because when you have cancer the doctor gives you the best medicine and if it doesn’t shrink the tumor immediately then that’s a pretty clear sign you were just faking it for attention. I mean, cancer is a serious, often fatal disease we’ve spent billions of dollars studying and treating so obviously a patient would never have to try multiple drugs, surgeries, radiation, etc., to find what will work specifically for them.

By Shawnte Orion @ShawnteOrion

By Shawnte Orion
@ShawnteOrion

This sort of deep exploration of American’s understanding of metal illness and how that definition affects Lawson is a theme throughout the memoir. She brilliantly encourages readers to join the conversation in order to make mental illness less taboo, as many readers have already done at her blog and on Twitter. Lawson herself reaches out for help, sharing one pleading post from her blog as an example.

Even Victor prompts his wife to explore herself more deeply during a mock interview. Lawson admits that there were so many interviews after the success of Let’s Pretend this Never Happened that this time she’ll include interview Q & A in the book so she won’t have to suffer the crippling anxiety. Victor points out, “It seems like by this point in a book about depression you would have explained what depression is.” Lawson replies, “It’s hard to define.” Victor prods, “Well, this is a book, so maybe try.” Here, I applauded Victor for expressing my very thoughts while reading Let’s Pretend this Never Happened, and I was thrilled when Lawson tries again and again to define depression. Meanwhile, Victor says, “Hmm” and “So…?” and “I want to be helpful but I don’t know if that means that I should ask you to elaborate or tell you to stop elaborating.”

Of course, the main feature of Furiously Happy is how funny it is. Lawson combines her self-analysis with humorous storytelling. When it comes to beauty aids, Lawson doesn’t believe in adding to the body, like Botox or augmentations, but instead she is for stripping away. She writes, “Somehow that all seems healthier to me. Or at least more likely to make me less of who I am. Which is probably pretty unhealthy, now that I think about it.”

One of my favorites was when Lawson was missing, sending Victor into a panic. She can only explain how she was at a “surprise funeral”:

In a nutshell, I stopped at a nearby cemetery because I love the quiet, but unfortunately I unwittingly pulled into the cemetery minutes after a funeral procession had pulled in. I would have driven off…but when I turned to reverse I saw a line of cars right behind me and that’s when I realized I was fucked….I wanted to explain that I was just browsing but thought it would sound weird, so I just got out and went to the funeral, which was odd because I avoid most social occasions of people I know and love and here I was, willingly participating in the burial of a dead stranger.

It’s good to read that Jenny Lawson is still taking life one step at a time and promoting the #FuriouslyHappy way of thinking to combat all the assholes and bad days. I’m happy to know that Victor is still there, even when they seem so ill-matched (he has a retirement fund, whereas the author keeps change in a drawer–though not quarters; those are for gum). I was also pleased to see that while not in color, the photos were bigger/clearer this time. Overall, Furiously Happy is a much more introspective book that doesn’t lose the humor, and I recommend you read it.

By Manning The Merciless @pooinanalleyway

By Manning The Merciless
@pooinanalleyway

Gag

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GagGag by Melissa Unger

Pages: 141

Publisher: Roundfire Books

Released: 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally published at TNBBC

Of Marriageable Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scattershot

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Scattershot: Collected Fictions, by Amy L. Eggert, was released this past March from the new indie publisher, Lit Fest PressScattershot clocks in at 112 pages–14 pieces in all–which gives you an idea of the length of each story.

There were 2 themes that guided Eggert’s collection. First, change results in terrible confusion. An accident in a swimming pool causes a woman to feel confused about her relationship with her brother. A grandfather must live in a nursing home, causing confusion and denial that where he lives should be called home. An traffic/bicycle accident of some kind confuses both a boy (and the reader) as to what state the world is in (apocalyptic?). A brick changes a man’s world and sends him spiraling into confusion–and violence.

The second theme was death–and it was everywhere. Accidents, homicide, suicide, abortion; children and animals are not spared. Just mowing down lives (no zombies required). A child dies, a woman dies, another child dies, a baby dies, a mother and father die. Only one piece didn’t have death, and that one was about beating a mother and son until the boy is holding his teeth in his hands.

Getting to the death wasn’t always a straightforward route. Eggert tells a story backward or gives details without context and then slowly fills the reader in. Some pieces filled in the gaps using repetition, given the story a Sestina-like quality that I very much enjoyed. I wanted to quote some, but the stories are so short that I would have to quote the whole thing (a reviewer faux pas, yeah?).

Because the stories were often told unconventionally, I had to put the book down after each one and give my brain space to regroup. The language is so tight that losing my focus, even for a second, meant I needed to reread parts. One story was lean enough that it didn’t use the word “the”:

This was after Billy standing at top of stairs, ears plugged like cotton balls, a humming sound, watching mama’s silence, purple bruising her face, her arms, her body lying on the foyer floor, her eyes staring up at ceiling, one leg twisted beneath her, other leg propped up on stairs, head still balanced on second step.

Such phrasing made the story harder to read, but it also gave the form a disconnected, splintered feel, much like the content itself, which is violent and tragic.

In a couple of cases, the stories concluded in ways that seemed designed to shock-and-awe rather than follow the logic established in the plot. Most noticeable in “Chalk Dust to Dust” and “Parallel Play,” these stories were solid beginnings and middles that sped along, making me curious about what happened next, but left me thinking, “Well…huh” instead of an actual emotion.

Overall, Scattershot feels like a diary of psychological damage, one that tinkers with language and, occasionally, form (some of the “fictions” read more like prose poems). If you read the stories too fast, you may become desensitized to the death and violence, which is a bit like cheating your emotions. Scattershot is a recommended read that I suggest you ingest very slowly, perhaps in between bits of another novel.

*I want to thank publisher Jane L. Carmen for sending me this collection in exchange for an honest review. I have no personal, familial, or professional relationship to this author.

Griefland

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Griefland
by Armen D. Bacon & Nancy Miller
skirt!, 2012

Was I aware of others’ grief before facebook? Probably not. Each day in my news feed I skim over posts claiming a loved one has died or that it is the anniversary of a death. I see requests for prayers and protests of unfathomable deaths (accident/victim/children) linked to news media sites. Before facebook, I thought about death and grief at funerals, and social media has taught me that all I can do is type “I’m sorry for your loss” and probably not mean it or skip the post because I don’t do prayers (and I’m not sure how typing “prayers!!!” is the same as praying…). Armen D. Bacon and Nancy Miller have introduced me in their co-authored nonfiction book Griefland to the concept of unanticipated reminders of death in the lives of mourners.

The form alone kept me engaged; tiny minute-by-minute sections suggest survival after trauma is one second at a time. Each section begins with an e-mail from Nancy to Armen, or vice versa, two women who have each lost a child (Armen’s son Alex and Nancy’s daughter Rachel) to drug addiction-related deaths. When Armen confesses to a therapist she wants her life back, the therapist, “a voice,” reminds her, “This IS your life.” Once there is grief, there is no “old life,” a big lesson Griefland teaches.

On they go, Armen and Nancy, women who were unacquainted prior to the deaths of their children. Part of their grief involves imagination:

‘I wonder what those two rascals [Rachel and Alex] are up to,’ Nancy would one day write, in a midnight e-mail.

‘They might be dancing,’ [Armen] would reply.

To write something so interior, and to write it to another person, and to do this over the course of months, is bravery.

There are days of breakdown, the kind that are harder to understand, but fascinating (from a reader’s point of view) to follow. When Nancy’s nail polish is chipped, she breaks: “For me, it was a full-blown emergency. I cannot bear losing one more piece of myself. I cannot stomach seeing one more thing chipping, falling, or peeling off me…”

Both women come to learn there are no rules for grieving, which sends a message of hope in this book. We wonder in bad times when things will return to normal, when we will “be better, as if we know what that means, as if we believe ourselves to be unchanging creatures with emotional homeostasis. Really, the sense of self solidified is a dream, Griefland suggests: “In time people will need to know are okay, so they can return safely to their own lives, confident that nothing like this could ever happen to them….”

*Review originally published in JMWW