Tag Archives: travel

Fat Girl Dances With Rocks #LGBT #ownvoices @SusanStinson

Standard
Fat Girl Dances With Rocks #LGBT #ownvoices @SusanStinson

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


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

fat girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fat women beach

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

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

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

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

Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

Standard
Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

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

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

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

Zora maid

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

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

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

IMG_20170316_140149812.jpg

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

 

IMG_20170316_143257703 (1)

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

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

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

zora laughing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

zora tada

The Alpine Path

Standard
The Alpine Path

If you followed along with my #20BooksofSummer challenge, you’ll remember there was a stretch in there — an 8 book stretch! — during which I was reading the Anne of Green Gables series. At the end of each Anne book was the same bio describing author L.M. Montgomery’s own life as baby without a mother and a grief-stricken father who gave two-year-old Montgomery to her grandparents. She is described as lonely; her grandparents are too harsh. Her later marriage is not a happy one, as her husband suffers from mental illness. Montgomery continues to write, but she laments her first Anne sequels: “I’m awfully afraid if the thing takes, they’ll want me to write her through college. The idea makes me sick.”

I would have never gathered any of this sadness from my latest read, The Alpine Path: The Story of My Career. The autobiography is a slim 60-something pages, and Montgomery sounds doggedly determined and relatively happy, thus making me question the entire book as a way to please readers instead of tell the truth. In fact, the original book was published in 1917 in Woman’s World magazine over the course of six months. At the time, she had published 6 books and was very popular.

alpine-path

Since Montgomery has published books and is famous in Canada, she relies on readers to be faithful. Frequently, Montgomery describes moments from her life that inspired scenes in her fiction. However, I haven’t read anything other than the Anne series, so an allusion to The Story Girl, for example, is lost on me.

Montgomery’s personal stories occasionally bored me. I didn’t care that sailors landed on her island when she was a girl, nor did her grandparents’ history interest me, except when Montgomery’s humor shines through as she describes one relative who didn’t want to be dragged from England to Canada:

Bitterly homesick she was — rebelliously so. For weeks after her arrival she would not take off her bonnet, but walked the floor in it, imperiously demanding to be taken home. We children who heard the tale never wearied of speculating as to whether she took off her bonnet at night and put it on again in the morning, or whether she slept in it.

Although she’s famous, Montgomery refers to The Alpine Path as a book about her “career” — as if she doesn’t have one! As a child, she became very ill; when recovered, she devoured sausages (perfectly good ones) and lamented it:

Of course, by all the rules of the game, those sausages should have killed me, and so cut short that “career” or which I am writing. But they did not. These things are fated. I am sure that nothing short of pre-destination saved me from the consequences of those sausages.

In the early passages during which Montgomery describes her childhood, it’s easy to see connections to her writing. At least, connections to Anne Shirley. For instance, Montgomery doesn’t appreciate getting a hot lunch from her nearby home every day because all the other school children bring lunch pails, but when it’s too stormy to travel she takes her lunch and is “one of the crowd.” How happy she is those days! Childhood lunches factor into our personalities a great deal! Just ask Anne Lamott, who wrote that should you ever get stuck while writing, begin describing school lunches and you will never run out of material.

Despite her fame, Montgomery is highly relatable. She describes gentle teasing that she endured that scarred her for years. She explains that someone who hurt her feelings wouldn’t be aware that those feelings were hurt for years. Again, I felt the author relatable because even today bullies are calling people “too sensitive” as a form of insult to denote weakness and a personality handicap.

lmm

Much later, Montgomery gets into the actual writing life. True, she wrote stories and in journals all through her youth (“descriptions of my favourite haunts, biographies of my many cats, histories of visits, and school affairs, and even critical reviews of the books I had read”), but an interest in feedback and publishing came later. I found the book tilted away from her actual writing life a great deal, making the text unbalanced, but it possibly worked much better in the magazine’s serial form.

All writers experience doubt, Montgomery reminds us, and when her father tells her that a poem she wrote “doesn’t sound much like poetry,” she stops writing for a time. Really, she is impressively unstoppable. She gets up at 6:00AM in a freezing house to write. She hates starting a story because it feels like so much work. She is surprised that she wrote a book because she just kept working and then had written the entire thing.

Montgomery wisely includes some caution, though not with instructional intent. Like many of us book bloggers, the author notes that a story with a moral is unjustified and more akin to swallowing “a pill in a spoonful of jam!” While family and friends forever have speculated on which character in a story is them, Montgomery notes, “Any artist knows that to paint exactly from life is to give a false impression of the subject.” Even strangers wrote to the poor woman, insisting that their lives are so interesting that she should write them down (haven’t all writers heard this?). One big point that struck me as particularly relevant in a time of “Girl” novels and dystopian trilogies was about money:

The book may or may not succeed. I wrote it for love, not money, but very often such books are the most successful, just as everything in the world that is born of true love has life in it, as nothing constructed for mercenary ends can ever have.

Yet, The Alpine Path took a turn 10 pages from the end. Montgomery lifelessly describes her travels to Scotland with her husband (who isn’t even named). We stopped here, we stopped there, she writes, and then the autobiography ends. It was terribly disappointing! Why she did not include more about publishing, writing, critics, and readers, I do not know. However, her now-published journals reveal her despair on her wedding day, the decline and deaths of her grandparents, and her husband’s mental illness. Granted, I have not read these journals in their entirety, but it would appear that The Alpine Path was written for devoted fans who wanted to see inside Montgomery’s life — and not find darkness.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová @RoseMetalPress

Standard
The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová @RoseMetalPress

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage

by Kelcey Parker Ervick

Published by Rose Metal Press, November 2016


Němcová’s own life contained elements of the fairy tale:

her parentage was possibly noble, though she was raised among the household servant class;

she was forced to marry a man she did not love;

unwise decisions brought her personal hardship later in life as well as financial troubles;

and she came to an untimely end.

bozena-cover

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

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

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

bozena-maiden

“To where are they leading the maiden in the white dress?” acrylic, graphite, and collage by Kelcey Parker Ervick

So readers are not confused, the author adds a brief section up front, “A Few Notes on Czech Names,” demonstrating both the complexity of the language and the sexism inherent in it: “–ova was a not-so-subtle way of adding ‘egg’ to a name to feminize it.” Thus, when Božena married Josef Němec, she was Božena Němcová. Readers learn “the proper pronunciation of Božena Němcová is BO-zhena NYEM-tsovah.” Wisely including a note on language and pronunciation gave the book a new layer of meaning and enabled me to feel close to the subject matter; if I can’t pronounce her name, how much affinity can I feel for Božena Němcová?

The collage text itself is broken in to two parts. Part I includes five sections that move through Němcová’s life, from her obscurity to her passions, her loveless marriage to her last days of poverty, illness, and starvation. Each section includes excerpts from Němcová’s writing, primarily her novel, Babička (also known as The Grandmother or Granny); letters Němcová wrote to friends and lovers; images, mostly photos taken by Parker Ervick or collages she created; and scholarly works, chiefly the book Women of Prague by Wilma Iggers. No page in the book is completely filled; these are pieces, excepts.

Readers get to know and fall in love with Němcová. In 1954 she writes, “my favorite fantasy was to enter a convent — Just because I had heard that nuns learn so much.” Often known for her aversion to traditional expectations for Czech women, Němcová surprised and astonished people. The young woman was admirably to the point: “…but you know that to have human feelings is considered a sin. . .. In my belief a beautiful sin has its moral dignity and merit — what is not beautiful about it contains it’s own punishment.”

A biographical collage juxtaposes information in a way that otherwise reads stiffly in an academic text. On the left page, Němcová’s maid recalls how Božena and husband Josef were not right for each other. On the right page, Žofie Podlipská (another Czech writer) admires Mr. Němcová and his opinion of his writer wife. The two first-person accounts almost reminded me of reality TV shows on which participants enter a booth with a camera in order to confess or vent.

bozena-money

Though unknown to many, the writer made it onto Czech money.

Němcová certainly wields a talented pen. When I can’t let something go, I call it “fixating.” When she can’t let something go, she declaims:

My soul is often as a lake, where a slight wind stirs up waves that cannot be calmed.

One thought chases the other as little clouds in a thunder storm, each more somber than the next, until the whole sky is covered

with heavy clouds.

Part II contains “postcards” (they don’t actually look like real postcards) Parker Ervick wrote to Němcová about her time in Prague, learning Czech, and the conclusion of her own unhappy marriage. The postcards aren’t self-important. Parker Ervick reaches out to Němcová like a best friend or long lost sister. Her time in Prague suggests her life is a fairy tale, both lovely and painful, when she takes long journeys through the woods by foot to find monuments to Němcová and later finds a happy ending.

432048_4416914863970_666673969_n

Parker Ervick meets relatives: “Na zdravie,” personal photo of author, her cousin Josef, and slivovitz, taken in Okoličné, Slovakia.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage brings back the passion and beautiful language of Parker Ervick’s first book, For Sale by Owner, which I so desperately missed in her second title, Liliane’s Balcony. She keenly examines her identity as it changes: Who is she in Prague? In the U.S.? In her writing? In her marriage? Thanks to the form, each postcard deftly gets where it needs to go, but without losing the pathos.

A deeply intimate and creative endeavor, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage could work beautifully in a classroom or on your bedside nightstand.

A Cute Tombstone #bookreview #readwomen #Russia

Standard
A Cute Tombstone #bookreview #readwomen #Russia

A Cute Tombstone by Zarina Zabrisky

published by Epic Rites Press, 2013 (48 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

The Tide King #BookReview #MagicalRealism #war @MichalskiJen @BlackLawrence

Standard
The Tide King #BookReview #MagicalRealism #war @MichalskiJen @BlackLawrence

On Monday, I posted a Meet the Writer feature with Jen Michalski in which she discussed her new novel. The book, The Summer She Was Under Water, was published yesterday, August 9th! Congrats, Jen! Be sure to sign up for her Goodreads giveaway for a chance to win a copy.


The Tide King by Jen Michalski

published by Black Lawrence Press, 2013

I start with my admissions: I wrote book reviews regularly for Jen Michalski at JMWW and I’ve reviewed her other works, the collection Close Encounters and, more recently, Could You Be With Her Now (two novellas in one book). Jen also hired me to coordinate a book blog tour of her collection, From Here. It’s always nice to help someone get the word on her book out — assuming the review is honest. I’m often attracted to other writers whom I’ve found are meticulous, hard-working, good at her craft, and can teach me something. Jen Michalski is one of those writers, which is why I had no concerns about taking on her first novel for review.

The Tide King begins with the most current date you will encounter, 1976. A man, woman, and girl get into a cab in Poland make the driver uncomfortable: why are these individuals unusual, their eyes and mannerisms not fitting for their bodies? The young man and woman are American, but the girl is Polish, and so he speaks to her in the language, asking if she will be alright.The Tide King Michalski

Fall back to 1942 where we meet Stanley Polensky and Calvin Johnson, soldiers, and two of the main characters. We learn that Polensky’s mother has given him an herb that is said to protect the person who ingests it. He keeps it in his helmet, assuming his mother is just superstitious. After reading detailed battle scenes from World War II (impressive!), you will learn that Polensky uses the herb — but on who, or what? That is all I will tell you.

Go even further back to 1806 when we meet a girl, Ela, and her mother, whom are considered witches in their village of Reszel, Poland, because they make tinctures. They find an herb — burnette saxifrage — that grows in on land that has been struck by lightning. Through experiments with animals, the mother learns that the herb is special, causing the animals to repair even the worst of mutilation. Is this herb an elixir for immortality?

As you read, it becomes easy to discern who the man and little girl in the cab from the prologue are. But, Michalski keeps you guessing as to who the woman is. Several women are good candidates, making this novel part of many genres: mystery, war, romance, fairy tale, and — maybe? — Gothic.

 

Overall, the plot is an amazing feat of Michalski juggling characters, time periods, and languages — and she never drops a ball. The prologue, as I described, puts you at the end of the book, and the end of the book takes you back to the beginning. 1976 was a satisfying stopping point, but I can’t really convince you of that without evidence, which would blow some of the best plot points.

That’s just the thing! I am a verbal reader; I make a lot of sounds like, “Gah!” and “Duuuude!” and “Whhha?” when I get into a book. You see, these characters, especially the secondary, will bring you up and let you down. They were so… human /fickle /unpredictable! I wanted things to turn out like _________, but then the character would do something that really suited him/her, things I didn’t think Michalski would allow to happen, but she did! I tried to expect the characters to be unexpected — a mighty challenge that kept me reading way too late at night (something I haven’t done since my years with the Sweet Valley Twins in the early 90s).

Michalski gets readers thinking when she writers her characters before they are immortal. We can see ourselves on the pages, reflected in the choices the characters make regardless of the repercussions. Youth are easy to relate to, as they can ignore mortality:

He was young, and there wasn’t much to think about, in terms of consequences. He was young and didn’t know what lay ahead, which was the beauty of being young — so many risks taken before one has the sense to realize the dangers. He was young and going to fight [in World War II].

But what if you can live forever, as opposed to simply thinking you will because you’re young? Michalski tackles that question when she gives us truisms by which we may live. Or, we can dismiss them in favor of our own search for meaning in life. When you’re lonely finding a partner to fill the loneliness isn’t always the answer:

“I haven’t really met anyone here. But I have friends. I travel. I know that you don’t want to hear this, Heidi, particularly since you struggle with it so much yourself, but people are lonely a lot. Even if there is someone. There’s always a loneliness that people can’t fill, that pets can’t fill. And you have to make peace with it because you come into the world alone and you go out the same way.”

The sentences themselves, even when following male characters who were veterans (often stereotyped as macho), have a tender beauty. A character who lives forever describes what it means to find a woman with whom he fills a kinship:

She had grounded him. He didn’t feel essential to himself, even alive in a normal sense, but he felt tethered to Kate, her gravity keeping his moon rotating, surviving its long trip around the galaxy.

Michalski has a great talent for writing similes, comparisons that seem so fitting. A simple truck is compared to a beast, but it tells about the man who owns the truck, too: “In the vestibule, she saw her father’s truck through the front doors, its monstrous orange chassis shuddering, smoke pouring out of the damaged muffler like some ancient, grouchy dragon.” Imagine the father, who owns the truck: perhaps a broken-down (physically, mentally) man who smokes, who is unpleasant to be around.

The end of the novel, which gets you back to where you started, practically forces you to re-read that 1976 prologue to see what the man, woman, and little girl are like, now that you know who they are. But my fingers tried to trick me; I re-read the prologue and started to turn the next page to the first chapter again….

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

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

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

The Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz

published by Truman State University Press in 2015

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

the girls of usually.jpg

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

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

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

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

[paragraph break].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20booksfinal

#20BooksofSummer

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

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

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

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

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

Why did you start writing?

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

What kind of writing do you do?

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

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

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

My Name is Armen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy

published by Counterpoint Press, May 2016

IMG_8494 (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

harley-and-me-front-cover-v3 copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20booksfinal

#20BooksofSummer

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

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

 

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

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

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

harley-and-me-front-cover-v3 copy

Grab the Lapels: What is your writing process like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

unspecified

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

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

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

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

IMG_0387

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_8494 (2)

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

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

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

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


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