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You’re my boo (radley): Thoughts on Go Set a Watchman.

Mayella Ewell from Salon Magazine (2012)

Based on initial excitement levels, I was off the richter scale.  I got an all caps text from my best friend aying, “HARPER LEE IS GOING ROUND TWO” and I ran to the other classrooms in order to tell everyone that Scout would be grown soon and we should have a teacher book club.  Forget about what Mayella might be like as an adult.  I always imagine her adulthood in one of two ways, she’s a white trash Sula character that is both mysterious and sultry, but hog tied to her hometown (a la Toni Morrison), or she’s the opposite of her Daddy, she seeks to reconcile her wrongs rather than seek revenge for them. The question is: will she be a flower or a weed?

Image @ Pinterest

I really would like to go with flower as Mayella grew those beautiful red geraniums which remind me so much of the story  “Marigolds.”

“Against the fence, in a line, were six chipped-enamel slop jars holding brilliant red geraniums, cared for as tenderly as if they belonged to Miss Maudie Atkinson, had Miss Maudie deigned to permit a geranium on her premises. People said they were Mayella Ewell’s.” (17.64)

Mayella could be one of two characters in the story “Marigolds.” She could be Miss Lottie who grows beautiful marigolds in a poverty neighborhood, or she can be Lizbeth, who in a fit of teen angst rips up the marigolds for herself.

1. Will Mayella be a flower or a weed?

Law and Order SVU

This if my first question because it’s the one that most bothers me.  Here we have Atticus Finch, this supreme man in literature, who could father all my babies if he wanted to, but his moral high ground doesn’t really extend beyond Tom Robinson, his family, and the old women who live down the street.  He fights for Tom in an argument against a girl that has been raped and abused by her father for her entire life.  If Mayella were a Law and Order episode, she would have countless visits with Dr. Wong, an empathetic shoulder in Benson, and her father would certainly get the shakedown from Elliot.  Mayella would be a sympathetic aggravator because she’s a product of her environment, a child of trash who was shunned by her town and left.

Atticus fights as Tom’s lawyer and says things like, “Before I can live with other folks, I’ve got to live with myself” to his daughter, but this isn’t a novel that fights for women.  He’s a great father, but the women in the neighborhood are either, old, dead, or liars.

Atticus Meme on Tumblr

Mayella could take this one of two ways.  She could do the opposite of her father and seek to reconcile his wrongs instead of avenge him, or she could become something else entirely.  A fighter, or a whiner.  A flower or a weed. I’m hoping that with her father dead she found some kind of peace in those red geraniums and bloomed into a new women, but that would be like living in a world where Harry Potter doesn’t die (oh wait, that happened).  I’m interested to see how she does in a real world, if she escapes, or if she tells them to tighten the rope.

Sarah Churchwell says it better than me in her article “Why To Kill a Mockingbird is overrated.”

2. How will Scout be a feminist in a new world?

Scout’s ham costume in the movie of To Kill a Mockingbird

Since Go Set a Watchman is based on Scout as a grown woman, I’m trying to wrap my mind around how this is going to work.  In 1930s TKAM, Scout is a bit of a mini-feminist, a child who can break up a tunnel of men holding weapons outside of a jail. There isn’t a word for what she is, but instead of putting on dresses, she puts on ham costumes and suspenders, and there’s nothing more manly than bacon, am I right?  However, if she’s a middle aged woman in this new book, I’m assuming it’s set around the 1960s/70s.

Martin Luther King Jr. with daughter Yolanda

Will Lee allude to the anti-violence campaigns of King, the fists of Malcolm X, the propaganda of Hitler? Scout will have lived through WWI, WWII and be going into Vietnam.  Is Scout a woman who protests parades for drafted soldiers, or is she the woman that kisses her soldier slowly under dimmed kitchen lights? Is there even a soldier at all, because if you’re raised by a man like Atticus, who else can compete.  Scout will have experienced hatred across a full globe; blacks who are told to act less than in America, European people who are told what is human and what is animal, and for Vietnam she will have to decide whether she believes in the men, or the fight.

1950s vacuum advertisement

This is a world of the 1950s where vacuum advertisements have women wearing aprons and sparkling white teeth.  How will Scout be able to maintain her values in a world where the word feminist hasn’t even really been tapped yet.  Today, girls believe being a feminist means having an alarm set at 8:30am everyday that says, “Be a bad bitch,” and climbing over their male counterparts in heels to get to the next higher paying job – glass slipper, more like glass ceiling – but in a world where everything is strained and chaotic, what will Scout’s voice be? Will she just follow the voice of Atticus and try still to treat everyone equally or is the world truly more complicated than that.

How will her ideals and values stand up to such world hate and how will Lee justify her behaviors in a world that held women down? In childhood Scout, we can justify it by childhood whimsy, grown women don’t get the same niceties.

These are things I need answered in this book.

3. How the hell is the narrative voice going to work?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

TKAM stars an elderly woman who is looking back on her childhood and retelling the tale.  Some of my students love the book, and others think it’s just another grandmother telling about “the struggle.”  And I’m confused about how this is all going to work because if it’s old Scout telling her childhood story in TKAM, how is this going to work for Go Set a Watchman?

In this book, will it be a first person narrative voice in the same time of the telling, but then won’t that be confusing for readers of TKAM or are we just going to ignore this small detail and keep on reading? Because if it’s the same old Scout telling a new story, will it really be as meaningful the second time around when she’s no longer wistful on childhood fancy, but instead wistful on middle aged womanhood in a time when your only option was femininity.

I’m struggling with this juxtaposition even more because sources have claimed that this book was written before To Kill a Mockingbird and therefore the voice could either be the same or completely different, but it will still be wholly amateur.  Lee was a complete amateur when TKAM and while she claims writing was a struggle, I’m not sure it had a very heavy editing hand.

4. Didn’t we think this manuscript was destroyed in a house fire?

Harper Lee’s Sister, Alice, Practicing Law @ Daily Mail

Or it was flung out a window on a cold winter’s night? This is the question with all the conspiracy theories.  I grew up thinking that Harper Lee was such a badass because through all the pressure and the requests, she stayed in her hobbit hole small town and refused to write anything else.  I never thought I would see the day where she published something, especially because her sister Alice claimed that there was nothing else, the manuscript had been destroyed.

That’s why I find it really strange that all of a sudden Alice has passed away and Lee’s lawyer has found this manuscript (was it buried under hoarding tendencies, or placed in an unnamed folder, or locked in a safe this whole time, the one remaining thing that they can claim from a house fire). Just exactly, how did this come about.  Some sources claim that Lee is so old that she would sign rights to anything at this point, the woman is 88 so we have to give her a break. Other sources claim that she’s “happier than hell” that the novel is finally getting published.

Nelle Harper Lee @ Wikipedia, looking like a straight boxing b in this photo.

Nelle Harper Lee @ Wikipedia, looking like a straight boxing b in this photo.

My concern is the general well-being of an author that has ALWAYS refused to sell the text, and the fact that she wrote this before TKAM (1960s) and in today’s editing world, the publisher might take some liberties.  Now, you all know that I love Harper Collins (they’re my favorite publisher), but I also have a strong belief that writing is based on revision.  In fact, writing is revision (I say this standing on my soap box).  It’s one thing to be able to write some magnificent plot on a page, but it’s a whole other donkey to be able to take it apart, piecemeal it back together, cut and paste, organize, and create a story. Plot v. story. I’m worried that Harper Lee will have very little stake in this process and it will be in someone else’s hands in the revision.

If it is revised, edited, changed by the editors or the inner circle of Lee, how will the reader’s react, or find her within? And for Lee is this the copout that she’s looking for – if it sucks, she can claim they changed it – if it’s wonderful, then it’s hers and hers alone. I’m sure an 88 year old isn’t looking for a copout, but you get what I’m saying.

Paste Magazine wrote my favorite article on this topic.

5. What ever happens to Boo Radley?

Boo Radley Meme – SO MANY QUESTIONS

I know for a fact that we call our significant other’s “boo” because of Boo Radley.  There is no other possible explanation for this.  Boo was a shut-in with allegations of knife-weilding against him, and I think we’re all pretty sure that he murdered Bob Ewell after stalking (yes, in a sweet way with gum, pennies, and wax figurines) those children for most of a year.  He’s a side character, but in my eyes, he is the book.

Without Boo Radley, there wouldn’t be the same suspense, we wouldn’t be comforted with his presence when Scout sneaks out, or she and Jem are traveling unaccompanied through dark woods.  I wonder how Harper Lee is going to include him in this novel. Could he fall madly in love with Scout and we have this strange fan fiction moment where everyone’s dreams come true (I guess she would have to love him too then).  Or will he still be a shut-in in a town that doesn’t understand him.  Sources claim this book is a moment when Scout returns to her hometown (Macon) to visit her aging father.  If Boo still lives next door, will she see him too or will Lee just gloss over his move to somewhere else and we never get Boo back.  We never really got the after-effect of that death on his hands in TKAM. Scout, childish, grabs his hand and walks him home and that’s it. Well, what happened?  Go Set a Watchman better figure this out.

6. I worry about the impact on future readers. 

I know we won’t go out and order a class set for every school in America because it sounds like this isn’t going to be another coming-of-age story, the woman is already of-age (we read a lot of this stereotype…er…genre in high school literature), but I wonder how this will impact future readers.  Will they feel compelled to push through Go Set a Watchman or even read it before the emotional impact that is To Kill a Mockingbird.  Will this be like that time that JK Rowling tried to publish something else and no one liked it.  I’m worried that this second book could ruin the ideal of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Although it has problems, it is the pedestal of Great American Novel.  Like Harry Potter is the middle grades fantasy equivalent to a greek god.

Harper Lee, 88. Lovely. @ Huffington Post

Harper Lee was going out on a legacy that is still founded today – we still teach TKAM to 9th graders – but with this new book, I worry about the possibility that that legacy could be tainted.  I probably shouldn’t worry though, because she’s not worried with her adorably huge smile.

I can’t say for sure how I feel about this book until I’ve turned over the front cover and begun.  I must remain gracious with my expectations, but they are numbered and many.  I know Harper Lee is a bad mamba-jamba so I will live in hopes that she wouldn’t produce two million copies of something that she didn’t completely believe in.


YOLO: “You Oughta Look Out”

“…the idea of dragging souls across the landscape like cans of string” (309).

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

When my newspaper students set out to choose the top news stories of 2014 this week (as an assignment on newsworthiness and the eight factors involved) most every single pair chose the “Ebola Outbreak” as a top news story.  Without sounding painfully unsentimental, ebola has killed 4,887 approximately, and four million civilian casualties happened in the Vietnam War.  It’s all how you look at numbers, and I’m not saying that those lives didn’t matter (Ebola lives), but I am saying that it’s a wonder to me sometimes how America does math.

Part of the conversation that I believe in having is one about poverty, and the major differences and obstacles between first world countries and third world countries.  As an American teacher, I can’t really speak of the experience in the third world, but as an American teacher teaching in the highest poverty county in North Carolina, I can speak to the conditions of life for people who get very few glances of empathy and instead are pushed down by excuses.

I was thinking about these ideas (epidemics, poverty, childhood) while reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, the National Book Award winning story of a post-apocalyptic world where a variation of the swine flu kills 99% of the population and leaves a band of hopeful Shakespearian symphony members, an old man in an airport running a Museum of Civilization, a young boy from Jerusalem who becomes a prophet following the light he read about as a child in a comic book, and the wifely remnants of a dead actor, hoping for some sort of epiphany that will break back a world that only returns in glimpses.

Ebola, the shoe string of death @ CDC.Gov

Nathan Burton’s design for the Dr. Eleven comic in Station Eleven is part of the Picador marketing program. @ Thought Catalog

Each main character of the story holds on to artifacts left in their hands from a life before where running water was a given not an opportunity, or finding books of poetry would send someone on a search through a used bookstore shelf rather than shuffling behind someone’s locked and empty shell of a home.  In the story, the founder of The Museum of Civilization displays things as simple as credit cards, iPhones, and passport photos – things that in the first world, we take for granted.  He puts his wishes on the idea that a man can just leave his credit card near a register if the world just happens to start up again. Kristen, who is a member of the traveling symphony, performs as Titania to relive a few moments of fallen snow on a stage in her childhood.  The only real difference now is her obsession with a dead actor and the two knives permanently drawn into her wrist.

Side note:  how perfect is Emily St. John Mandel’s name as the author of this book.  It’s almost soul-clenchingly creepy with the “Saint John” part of her name in full force between two seemingly usual names – Emily and Mandel.  I just found that a strange coincidence.

Station Eleven is brilliantly written and I’m sure no one would disagree with me, but I did have to plough through it and convince myself to pick it up again.  I do believe that it burns the stick at both ends.  This book is hoping to achieve a life-after-earth-as-we-know-it quality which can be steeped in coincidences that leave the reader feeling squeamish about how easy the stone age might be, but it also relies on the story of one man who connects four very different people at different parts of their lives.

YOLO @ brighterlife.com.pg (Creative Commons)

The book opens with this man who is playing King Lear in the stage play of Shakespeare.  I think Mandel’s use of Shakespeare is beautiful, but boarders on obsession.  Must Shakespeare be the King of Pop in literature, still? I know, I know, he created a whole language that we still use today, but I am just SO OVER that man’s wit.  I do understand the need to hold on to the old world, and what’s more old than Shakespearian ideals. Am I right? (I think Chaucer or the author of Beowulf would have some problems with this blog post. I would pay to see them battle it out).

Each character in the novel; old wives, airport survivors, Kristen, and a son, all represent this living flame in Arthur Leander.  Using Arthur, the novel is willing to do so many things to almost poke fun at our current American attitudes.  Arthur’s wives must escape paparazzi, one even that claims to have a soul for most of the story.  Authur’s friends must deal with his considerable drop in empathy once he “makes it big” as a stage actor.  And his death … all the cliches that can come from “dying too soon,” and “YOLO” come into play when the actor that everyone else on the apocalypse map stems from, dies suddenly before the flu even hits on a stage of plastic snow, under the cupped hands of the lonely.

Shakespeare @ Creative Commons Wiki

I think this is a story that won’t grow old for a really long time.  It has definite staying power with its use of famous ideals of literature, and this idea that is as old as time that the earth will one day end (or at the very least the sun will dry up – probably not the correct scientific theory language) and we will all be forced to rethink our entire use of civilization.

Jeevan is the most endearing character for this aspect of the novel.  He is the almost-savior of Arthur Leander, pumping his chapped winter hands against the famous man’s chest in an effort to find breath.  It is through this initial death that violence whispers down the novel. And Jeevan is the first: the first to push seven grocery carts through the snow to his brother’s apartment, the first to call his girlfriend to warn her, and the first (for the reader) to know how important a life in someone’s ribs stays, he is my first character of this book.  The one I most long to tell the rest of the story.  He gets misplaced in the middle, but I would like to see what he makes of the flicker of light at the end.  What regrets does that soul sing?

Station Eleven Image @ Liz & Gianna’s Blog

Finally, this book commanders the idea that people aren’t infinite, and even though my students yelled, “EBOLLAAAAAA” like they were singing about a cough drop most days last semester, it still begs the question, what really are we laughing at? Because I tell you, Flu’s are nothing to f*** with.

PS.  I thought this book was “just okay,” because as a ginger, I have no soul.


Girlhood is a glass vase.

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

It’s probably sad how attached I am to this book.  I wanted to simultaneously fall down a rabbit hole and climb into a dark hole while reading it.  Lena Dunham in Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells What She’s “Learned” is so spot on with her pseudo-memoir that I was practically highlighting the entire book.  I thought that she found the voice between psycho-tire-stabber and romantically-involved-with-herself girlhood.  I used to think Taylor Swift was my ultimate girl crush, but Lena Dunham has now taken the number one spot.  If I could have a moment with Dunham like she had with Nellie sans-vomit, I would drink the red wine, and curl up on a vintage french rug and tell her all my secrets with our bodies, knees together, and spines curved, into a heart shape (totally platonic).

Joana Avillez’ Art for Lena Dunham’s book @ SVA.Edu

At some point during my reading, I started coloring all the tiny pictures.  I think this was in an effort for the book not to end, but that makes me even more of a guppy so pretend I didn’t admit this.   Like Dunham’s memoir, it’s clear that I can’t go linear through it. I will do my best though.

Dunham starts with relationships.  I needed to read this so I could not choose the devil on my shoulder that said I could just artificially inseminate myself at 37 and choose the man on paper who would father that child.  (It’s still a serious thought though.  I talk about it over Mexican food to my best friends).  I’ve never written “Amen” in the sidelines of a book, but in this relationships section, I did too many times.  My personal favorite “Here’s who it’s not okay to share a bed with: Anyone who makes you feel like you’re invading their space.  Anyone who tells you that they ‘just can’t be alone right now.’ Anyone who doesn’t make you feel like sharing a bed is the coziest and most sensual activity they could possibly be undertaking (unless of course, it is one of the aforementioned relatives; in that case, they should act lovingly but also reserved/slightly annoyed) Now, look over at the person beside you. Do they meet these criteria? If not, remove them or remove yourself. You’re better off alone.”

Still of Lena Dunham’s Vimeo Video with illustrations by Joana Avillez

Art by Joana Avillez for Lena Dunham’s book.

I think that quote highlights the very essence of this book.  Everything she was saying I had either experienced, or knew was inherently bad/good for me, but sometimes, I need to be told literally in print to stop dating jerks because “When someone shows you how little you mean to them, and you keep coming back for more, before you know it you start to mean less to yourself.”

This rang so true for my high school first boyfriend (who was a total douchebag who I thought was so hot because he would start fights with boys that just looked at me over their shoulder) and rang true for a few boyfriends after that who treated me like I was good enough as their back-up dancer.  In this relationship section, I learned how okay I really am.  I highlighted many parts on self-respect, and continuing on your personal journey regardless of the man who either thinks he is on rungs higher than you, or doesn’t appreciate your oddness.

The amazing inside of Lena Dunham’s book by Joana Avillez.

The body section was a little weird, but still important to the general idea of being a woman and being told you’re not good enough in any shape unless you’re a Victoria Secret model (and even they’re told they’re too skinny).  We apply creams, sprays, dyes, lenses, glosses, surgeries to ourselves to look like someone we don’t even know, or someone’s ideal that we haven’t even really thought out for its purpose (Hello, obese women were the most popular in England for hundred of years before any Barbie ever came out — not that I recommend obesity for it’s general health problems, but still, the point).  This is the section people really have problems with on Goodreads. One girl actually counted the calories Dunham put for each item to find the errors.  I wasn’t looking for problems with Dunham while I was reading, I was just enjoying the kindred spirit affect of this book.

Maybe this makes me narcissistic.

Selfies-Fo-Days

Selfies-Fo-Days

I am, probably.  I enjoy a selfie-a-day.  I pout my lips in the mirror after I pop my lips together just following glossing them.  My Mom told me I was pretty (probably more than the average girl, but I wouldn’t know if this is true or not) and honestly, I believe it. And I think that’s important.  I feel pretty and I feel happy and I wear purple lipstick when I want and I still think I’m chic. So, BAM.

This was the other negative about Dunham’s book.  People thought like Joan Didion (pressing her riches into her memoir), Dunham is only famous due to her acclaimed parents and her “rich-girl” upbringing.  I beg to differ.  The girl who wrote this book is sensual, worldly, expecting, honest, experienced, and still learning.  I don’t care what the “haters” say at this point, this is someone’s life and it’s a story that’s worth telling like every life story is worth telling.  She even outlines her troubles in the industry and how she was treated not as a threat to her male counterparts, but as a sponge for ideas to steal.  She went to college and earned a degree in creative writing (even if she was the girl that everyone hates in workshop who tears their pieces apart and then has no merit in their own writing).  Girl got goods, she’s doing big things and I think at some point people need to learn to not be jealous of the way someone got to their light, but that they got there and they’re spreading it.

Image @ Blissfullvida@wordpress.com

Let the girl shine.

Dunham even writes about this jealousy, “And I decided then that I will never be jealous.  I will never be vengeful.  I won’t be threatened by the old, or by the new.  I’ll open wide like a daisy every morning.  I will make my work.”  If nothing else, this is advice to live by.  If everyone just tried to “do them” and better themselves and encourage others to continue to raise the tide, we would all be creating waves together.

Lena Dunham at the Globes 2010 (I think).

I think the biggest problem I have with people who hate this book is that they obviously were oblivious to the feelings of those around them in childhood and college.  Dunham opens doors to our most secret selves that we hide behind masked personalities.  She talks about her college sexual encounters and drug use (that ring true for so many college woman), and discusses her constant need for a therapist due to her anxiety about life’s bigger problems.  So many of the truly wonderful women, one of my very best friends especially, have trouble with anxiety and paranoia.  This is a true account of a society that either shuts its doors to people like this or just chooses not to recognize their struggle.  Regardless of how much money your parents make, your inner self can still struggle with so many things that are beyond financial.

Overall, this book gave me so many feelings.  I dried out a pen underlining and I couldn’t stop reading.  I wanted to keep knowing Dunham.  She had something to teach me even when she sounded just like me, because sometimes you need to hold up a mirror to yourself in order to understand.  Don’t believe the haters.  I know the girl can’t pick a Globes dress … ever, but she can write a damn memoir, and every girl should read it.

*I’ve never watched Girls so this review is totally based on Dunham’s memoir and short interviews at award’s shows (and the fact she’s best friends with Taylor Swift).


A book to turn on your weird feels.

SomeEcards are not so funny, but so true.

I, too, believe the theory that all people are ruined by their first love, even if they do end up marrying and toting the title of “high school sweetheart” or “kissed on the playground at six.”  While I watched, Cody from Sister Wives talk to his daughter about how kissing leads to attachments that should be kept separate for a future husband, I was scoffing, no less. And then I thought about it and kissing is terrible for the human psyche, at least if you’re playing those “adult” games.

I used to be really good at these when I was young and wild.  I think it came from being a good liar as a child, I could work a chess board of dating emotions with the best of them.  I was a black widow of dating, per Iggy.  It could also be the obscene amount of Brandy and Monica I listened to, but really, we can’t blame them, they were playing a game of their own.

SomeEcards are always SO on point.

I try not to play those games anymore because I got burned from my own sick game which taught me a valuable lesson about honesty.  And now, I’m probably too honest, to the point of the negative connotation of it, “blunt.”

It’s these games that cause us, as American dating millennials, so much trouble.  We picture our future marriages to a guy who just smiled at us, we window shop in online dating and swipe left every time he has an out of place freckle, and we madly text almost-love messages and then get bored four weeks later.  It’s actually a disgusting way to date, I like to call it the “date and discard.”  I find this is the case with a lot of my single friends (now that I’m in that category and I’m restudying my kind).  One of my best friends would rather call the dating scene for late twenties-early thirties, “dick pic and discard.”  (Thanks, Tinder).

Thanks, Tinder. You do so much for the community.

And if we get an emotional response (wait, we still have those nerves) we quickly find a reason to self-sabotage and chalk the whole thing up to another Taylor Swift downfall.  Heaven forbid, we set ourselves up for that “marriage” thing that all our other friends who are no longer cool on a Saturday night have.  Every single girl knows, she jumps up and down at the engagement of a friend and then goes home to paint her nails alone and thinks “man down.”

Another Bad Man by Miranda July

This isn’t the Sex & the City.  We’ve cloned thousands of Samantha’s and their walking around attached to cell phones and pretending to read books and all dressing like their from Portland.  This is actually a long way to set-up the review for Another Bad Man by Miranda July out from Scribner on January 13th.  A fitting date for this strange pursuit at a novel.

I should preface this with, I’m obsessed with Miranda July.  She’s like the coolest version of Zoey Deschanel, except she’s actually artsy, and she pulls off an Annie wig hairstyle, and she has the eyes of an anime character.  She’s got that “dark and mysterious” thing going on that my cousin claims is the only thing a girl needs to hook him.  (Another disgusting thing about millennials is that we don’t actually want to know each other, we just want our significant other to look good on paper…and on the face).  Jamie Veron had all this right in his article for Thought Catalog.

I say all this, longwindedly, to say that I think this idea of adult dating as sick game play is at the heart of Miranda July’s newest novel.    A forty year old woman is searching for her own life through ideas she believes from her past lives.  For example, she must date Philip because they were a cave family together, and she looks in the faces of babies to see if they are really her soul-children.  I know this all sounds strange right now, but it all ended up being for good by the end.  I’ll admit, a little bit into it, when she started going to the therapist for this imaginary globus stuck in her neck, I was a little worried that July was way off base.

Miranda July // Creative Commons

A quick summary: Cheryl (the forty year old) takes on a fresh-out-of-teenagehood house guest and they begin an adult game of their own which alters Cheryl’s life forever, and quakes the lives around her own (though she did have few friends).

It’s really a story of love and strength at any age, but it has some strange romances, or blips of romance because that’s the only way us millennials can date.  I think Cheryl is a woman stuck in between this idea of a lifetime marriage, and a blip of dating/cougarhood.  And it takes the entirety of the novel for her to figure out where her soul fits in this mess called life.

“None of them had been pursued.  I had not flown to Japan by myself to see what it was like there.  I had not gone to nightclubs and said Tell me everything about yourself to strangers.  I had not even gone to the movies by myself.  I had been quiet when there was no reason to be quiet and consistent when consistency didn’t matter.  For the last twenty years I had lived as if I was taking care of a newborn baby” – Cheryl in The First Bad Man by Miranda July.

A Miranda July Art Project from a few years ago.

I think the quote above establishes my favorite part of this novel because it sets everything that we believe on ice and forces us to realize that life is going to happen, whether we join in, whether we’re playing some game, or whether we actually win.  Dating will happen, or it won’t. Saturday nights alone will happen, or they won’t.  Therapists will give good advice and then immediately follow it with terrible advice that we always follow, friends do this too.  I once told my best friend to stand outside of a grocery store in her pajamas to beg for a boy to talk to her.  Not sure what dating cycle I was in at that point in my life, but it obviously was not a good one.

The characters in the novel all work at a self-defense agency making videos that women can use to get exercise, but also use as tools to fight off attackers.  They come together when Phil (one of the board members) presents a secret to Cheryl and Cheryl takes on her not-so-teenage houseguest, Clee.  Clee causes Cheryl to unwind and live a life that isn’t so plain jane, but she also rocks her world with unanswerable questions and even more unanswerable life situations.  These are the three main characters, I would argue, but others pop in with advice, rich characterization, and just overall weirdness.  I’m still a little unsure about the weirdness in this novel.  It took about halfway for me to invest enough in it to ignore all that.

Miranda July family videos // Creative Commons

This is why I’m going to not recommend this to the masses.  I think it’s more for a pocket of people that will understand that we all make really strange decisions, (and sometimes those are closet sexual decisions) in order to just get by.  If you can’t face that main Google fact, then I’m not sure this is really a book you should pick up.  It’s like watching really bad dancing (like doing the 1990s worm with a stomach bulge), and hoping it will get better, but then it doesn’t get better in the way that you think it will, instead it gets better in this odd new way.

I feel like I’m not making sense.  This is a really hard book to review in any sort of adequate way because it’s so….its own. It’s original and quirky and a little brilliant.  Just don’t blame me, if you feel weird while reading during parts of it.  I guess this is basically a dare. I dare you to read this one and try not to be completely weirded out. Let’s get strange!

 


Newsday Tuesday

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  • short 24 line rhyming poem: I wonder how many there are.
  • emily croy barker book 2: HOLLA! I’ve been waiting too.

Book News:


And What Exactly is the Melody of Love?

Lullabies by Lang Leav

This book was like a road trip with a friend that you should only really see for a lunch occasion, with another friend as a buffer. It was a mess of hurt to slosh through. Word to the wise, don’t read a poetry collection of love and heartache when you still have to listen to Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off” on repeat for the occasional evening.

I haven’t read any other of Lang Leav’s books, but I saw Lullabies all over #bookstagram, and who doesn’t love a lullaby?  I like listening to the rain when I sleep because there’s something about the whisper of a raindrop skimming a closed window.  This book, though, is a rocket taking off in your chest.  It makes you weep on pg. 3 and then you can’t get yourself together until pg. 37.  The very first poem, “Her Words” is written to every girl out there that ever wanted a boy to love the nerdy way she wrote his name in cursive in her notebook, circled in a collection of different sized hearts.

“Love a girl who writes
and live her many lives;
you have yet to find her,
beneath her words of guise.”

This is a poetry collection that gives meaning to Salinger’s famous quote, “She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.”  Lang Leav has constructed a collection for all the broken-hearted women, the story-tellers, and the girls who lunch gossips, the book clubs, and the girls who wish someone would ask them out in the produce section, the ones that the girl’s remember, and every single one they want to forget even though they can look at just something like windshield wipers and want to cry.  It’s a book, at the core, about love and the many ways we hold it, carry it or worship it.  Leav is clear in her mantra of love, but shows the ways too, that it can decay and sour.  I would argue that this book is best read just after falling in love, or just after leaving, which is all of us, all the time.

“Signposts” by Lang Leav

Post-breakup, I especially loved the poem “Signposts.” There was also the following line from “Thoughts of You:”

“There were times when I was with him and it was too much.  Does that make sense? When someone stirs a world of emotion in you and it’s so intense you can barely stand to be with him.”

A portrait of Woolf by Roger Fry c. 1917 (Creative Commons Wikipedia)

Other than feeling really loved throughout this text, I didn’t really pay attention to the structure of the book. I don’t really understand the sectioning and I think that’s okay.  I think the sections are more a symbol of Leav’s love life, and less something for the reader to hold onto as they read. I was very interested in her words and how she constructs the images, but less so with her rhythms and word choice.  She has constant images of the sea which I found cliche, even when she used them in a new way (love and the sea has been done before, and no one can compete with it more than Hemingway’s Old Man, Captain Ahab, and poor Virginia Woolf with her rock-filled petticoat pockets).  Her man should have just bought her a nice, straight robe.

A group of women window shopping in Toronto, Canada in 1937. via Creative Commons Wikipedia

Leav’s rhythm was often unexpected, but in an off sort of way.  You can’t set up the reader’s expectations with a set rhythm and then the last line throws that rhythm completely off.  Writers can do that when the line is meant to jar the reader with word choice, meaning, or conclusions, but just to have an off-set rhythm isn’t fair to the reader’s flow.  This is almost my only negative critique of Leav and I think that’s more because her content speaks to every high school heart that grows into a woman of boundaries, or window-shopping, of loose loving and rolled-up sleeves, or one of loneliness.  It’s hard to get a grasp on what kind of love you can give in all its forms and stages, but I think Leav’s volume, Lullabies, captures that unknowing.

http://www.wikihow.com670 × 503Search by image Be a Tomboy and Girly Girl Step 1.jpg via Creative Commons Wiki

The best thing I can say is that this book is that spirit of love.  There’s a poem for every single one of my ex-boyfriends, my dating trajectory and series of unfortunate events.  Down to the use of “thigh” in a poem, Leav read me like a stanza.   I immediately remembered one of my favorite ex-boyfriends (we had the best stories) who was stabbed and ended up with a lightning bolt scar on his thigh.  I constantly tell my students that it’s the specifics that make a poem, a reader doesn’t clutch at the general, but the small moment specifics that are so true to the speaker that they become true for the reader. Leav does this, and in many ways captures the loving feelings of a generation of girls that in all their willpower refuse to collapse in a world where we still have conversations about men being dominant.  Clearly, if we continue to write this poetry of the heart, our tomboyish flutters will win us a good conquer.

 

 


“I always remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad.”

My Favorite Things by Maira Kalman @ Smithsonian Press

Everyone has favorite things.

Julie Andrews sang a whole song about hers as she floated around mountain landscapes and swung around light poles.

I think it’s important to have favorite things, and even more, it’s important to have unusual things that don’t make sense to anyone but you because you’ve added some sort of sentimentality to the object itself.  I keep my grandmother’s strainer under the sink, not because it still works, but because sometimes I bring it out just to filter my kitchen light.  It’s got a star design of holes and it reminds me of a Christmas luminary.  Every so often, I need that speckled sunshine on my kitchen floors.

Used Chairs. Maira Kalman @ The Smithsonian

Maira Kalman wrote another fabulous illustrated memoir about some of her favorite things. Things she found in museums, in the muse of her childhood, on the side of old neighborhood streets, in fancy living rooms, books, embroideries.  In every Maria Kalman book I’ve ever read (even illustrations in current YA novels), she gives me some philosophy about life that opens the doors of my soul so I can hear the singing.  This one is no different.  My Favorite Things is built like a small gift, fabric binding, smooth hardcover, and vintage decorated inside cover and endpaper.

Teacup @ Smithsonian Press by Maira Kalman

I just think she’s so unusually creative.  She has an eye for quirky elegance like listing both Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh pages in her favorite things, as well as a collection of obtuse hats.  From a man lying in the park with a pug to Abraham Lincoln memorabilia, Kalman is looking at the world through the holes of a flower petal and the telescope of history.   This book originally began as a way to showcase the new Cooper Hewitt collection for the Smithsonian Design Museum.  However, it becomes this interweaving of life story, and how life story impacts the baggage we bring with us into a museum.  I might carry a large purse, but I find art compelling when it tells me something about myself, or my world.  It’s hard for me to connect to art when it doesn’t seem to deal inherently with me.  I’m sure that’s totally egocentric, but I think I match a typical American.  Art inspires because it smoothes and then oils the gears within us.

Embroideries by Maira Kalman after her mother’s death @ The Smithsonian

I think this is something Kalman has conquered with her favorite things, and her other books.  I am always inspired, I found myself turning the page just to see if we could share a story.  This is the best part of the book, it’s both memoir and trinket collection.  She tells the story of embroidery she stitched after her mother’s death, my favorite being, “my rigid heart is tenderly unmanned.” In another moment, she photographs a spoon with engraved initials, it says, “Before there were forks, there were spoons.  The spoon can be used by a baby, by a person eating soup.  Watching a person eat soup can break your heart.”

Hats by Maira Kalman @ Smithsonian Press

She even jokes about fringes being added to Lincoln’s pall that covered his coffin.  It’s both a story about the life of a woman, and the story about history as told through the eyes of the viewer, even the late-comer who views history much after it’s happened.  She is the eyes of the museum-goer, the photographer, the backpack traveler, the person who wants to reach out and touch the gold pot on the mantle in the Biltmore House, but resists just in case it trembles.  I adore Maira Kalman and I even almost used this book as a diary.  I wanted to write on the pages that she colored.  I’ve held back to keep it pristine, but I hope someone gets that close to this book.  It’s never a blush to get intimate with a good read.


Newsday Tuesday

It’s back….in BLACK (ink).

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Book News:


Story Anthologies That Don’t Suck | O. Henry Prize Stories 2014

I have to confess that I don’t subscribe to any literary magazines.

I’m a hypocritical book mongrel.

I rally for the short story form, even flash fiction if it’s done right, but then I don’t actually support the magazines that provide and establish authors that try to keep that form alive.  My only way of giving back is to read as many anthologies as I possibly can, particularly contemporary fiction anthologies.  I also try not to stick to the ones that Barnes and Noble carries because they never actually choose any weird ones.

Usually, when you read an anthology it’s because you either A. like the genre, B. you are starting your own small marathon of writing flash fiction to the early morning, or C. you want to know what the “best of” contains for that particular year, or in this case, century.  (Yes, be alarmed, someone actually believed they could put together a fair and righteous anthology of fiction for the CENTURY).  I would turn that book over in bookstores, hoping no one would buy it.

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014

Anyway, also per usual when reading an anthology, not all of the stories are good.  There are few that really spark and then only because one particular line changed how you viewed the world.  Then you read everything by that author hoping to get that sick feeling again (like a woman in a bad relationship) and it’s all for naught. Those feelings come quickly, and spaz out before we can even realize what’s happened.

Westinghouse Time Capsule @ Wikipedia Commons

This is NOT the case for The O’Henry Prize Stories of 2014.  There were only two stories that I didn’t feel were up to par and the rest were brilliant.  I found myself unable to physically write down (due to hand cramping) all of the quotes that I highlighted.  And the stories are new and fresh.  They don’t center around one genre, or one betrayal from the world. They are like a little capsule that we can fling into space and hope that some extraterrestrial with a sense of compassion finds to explain this world of love gusts and expectations that don’t meet fantasies.

Or we can bury it, for the future. I’d be willing for this book to be my message to the next world along with a long composition of why they should try to recreate the dinosaur, read Emily Dickinson, and take up Twitter.

  • The collection begins with mounting tension when two boys play with a gun.  One without a mother, and one who holds secrets tighter than he can hold a fist.  I’m not sure now which is which because they both blend together as children, and only when they become adults do they realize their differences (as most of us do with our childhood friends).  My favorite thing about it is that it repeats itself multiple times, through multiple ages of childhood and adulthood.  There is a “cathedral of silence” during every year of this man-boy’s life.  He faces this silence like an open wound and it leaves him questioning who he was, and who he is now.

“Later when he tells the story to people they won’t understand.  Why didn’t he run away? His friend had  a loaded gun.  He will be repeatedly amazed at how poorly everyone remembers their childhoods, how they project their adult selves back into those bleached-out photographs, those sandals, those tiny chairs.  As if choosing, as if deciding, as if saying no were skills like tying your shoelaces or riding a bike.  Things happen to you.  If you were lucky, you got an education and weren’t abused by the man who ran the fife-a-side.  If you were very lucky you finally ended up in a place where you could say, I’m going to study accountancy … I’d like to live in a countryside … I want o spend the rest of my life with you” (“The Gun,” Mark Haddon, Granta)

  • The next story, “Talk” by Stephon Dixon (The American Reader) plays with the idea of point-of-view in a story, the inner voice that we all communicate with after we stop trying to talk to our cats for most of a lonely day. It also plays with growing old when that inner voice might be the only person that we talk to in a day’s time.  Even when you think of talking to someone, that inner voice can hold you back, be it the voice a friend or a foe.
  • Art by Sejnow @ Deviant Art (Creative Commons)

    “Valentine” by Tessa Hadley (The New Yorker) just made me never want to have a daughter.  I’m not too far away to remember what I put up with from boys in high school, but I am too far away to meet that girl and shake hands like an acquaintance.  The girl in this story doesn’t “do bad all by herself,” but “does bad” for the boy with all the wrong angles.  He’s a writer, but he’s a wanderer.  He’s a bit grunge, but he’s haughty in philosophy.  It really just tells the story of the girl before the boy, during the boy, and then plays with the idea that you can go back to the girl who was the “before” version of yourself. (Hint: You can’t).

“There was a rare blend in him of earnestness and recklessness.  And he seemed to know instinctively what to read, where to go, what music to listen to.  He was easily bored, and indifferent to anything he didn’t like” (Tessa Hadley).

  • “Petur” by Olivia Clare (Ecotone) broke my heart more than a little.  It’s a mother and son story, the son is an adult on a vacation with his mother when a volcano goes off in Poland and they are forced to live in ash.  The ash becomes symbolic for their relationship and his mother’s scattered mind as she walks through the (not wreckage) but fall, and he watches her own odd unfurling.

Sparks Royalty Free Sparks Images (Creative Commons)

“Nights after her afternoon walks, she’d sit with a field guide.  I have a bird heart, she’d say, your mother, the bird.  Precise knowledge of a fjall’s origins, or of the call each bird made, was the closest she felt she had, she said, to wisdom, because lang, because details, were important.  They were solid and finite and felt infinite” (Olivia Clare).

  • Abuse. Roadtrips. Racism. Lingering unresolved, but unpracticed feelings. Old towns. Father’s who still protected their daughters from men who drank too much and leaned too crooked over stoves thinking. Trees with names. Tradition.

“You remember your mother saying you had to learn to use the Lexicon because words were both tools and weapons and the difference between the right one and the almost-right one was like lightning and a lightning bug, and when you said the lectern was higher than you could reach she showed you the step stool hidden underneath” (“You Remember the Pin Mill,” David Bradley, Narrative).

  • “Nemecia” by Kirsten Valdez Quade will stay with me the same way the movie, “Black Swan” stays with me.  They both have similar disturbing skin scenes.  Nemecia is an almost older sister to Maria, but in the end, they become neither sister nor friend.  It’s really the story of how grief creates competition in us.

Black Swan by It’s Too Dark @ Deviant Art (Creative Commons)

“Nemecia had an air of tragedy about her, which she cultivated. She blackened her eyes with a kohl pencil” (Narrative).

  • Most disturbing story in the collection is easily “Trust” by Dylan Landis (Tin House).  I was so uncomfortable with this story.  It felt a little bit like someone giving you a creative writing prompt like “If your house burned down, what would you take.” And immediately you start to live through your house burning down, and how the flames flicker, but they don’t flicker and you realize you’ve never experienced a fire and they probably gust like a parachute.  It’s just like that except it’s a teenage robbery and I just wanted it to end (in a good way…in a good writing way).  It’s also like every Law & Order episode that you live in fear of, except this is MID-DAY and you start to realize that this could happen at anytime of day, not just when you’re sleeping (which is terrifying).
  • “Old Houses” by Allison Alsup (New Orleans Review) tells the old neighborhood folktale from the perspective of a barbecue.  It’s just creepy enough to not really affect you personally, but add an edge to your day that wasn’t there before.  It wasn’t as strong as the others in the collection, but it did stand tall.
  • My favorite story in the entire collection is “Fatherland” by Halina Duraj (Harvard Review). I think that’s because I thought it was just going to be another World War II story, but it was beyond me giving you any account of why it’s so good.

“I tried to stop my father’s words at my ears but they would not stick.  I knew they weren’t meant for me, but I was half my mother, my father had said so himself.  Like any good soldier, my father shot bullets through the air toward a target, but did not understand collateral damage” (Halina Duraj).

  • Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show @ Wikipedia Commons

    “West of the Known” by Chanelle Benz (The American Reader) was the story that has stuck with me beyond reading the last story in this collection days ago.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it’s the quick moves between innocence and horror.  It’s (strangely) a Wild West story, but it doesn’t have any of that gun-slinging bullshit.  Well, it does, but it’s believable.  It ain’t no John Wayne rodeo if you know what I’m sayin’. At the end of the story, something bloody terrible happens and it’s truly believable.  I can feel the rope burns still.

“For in the high violence of joy, is there not often a desire to swear devotion? But what then? When is it ever brung off to the letter? When they come for our blood, we will not end, but ton on in an unworldly fever” (Chanelle Benz).

On second thought, maybe I like this story so much because it uses the word “brung” which I obsessively, and unconsciously used for the majority of seventh grade, while my father corrected me every single time.

  • Finding who you are in the grace of picked flowers, that’s “The Women” by William Trevow (The New Yorker).
  • Snake Handling @ Wikipedia Commons

    “Good Faith” is about snake handlers during a revival and how sometimes one person can’t change the ideals instilled in us since birth.  It’s a fantastic story, truly.  It might be one of my favorites from the collection because the ending is beyond powerful.  It’s the longest story in the collection and I wouldn’t mind if it was transformed into a novel. I would read these characters again and again.

  • Guy dates Asian girl.  They disembody one another. Life goes on.  A short summary of “The Right Imaginary Person” by Robert Anthony Siegal (Tin House).

“Parents and teachers agree to forget that children are in fact lunatics, and that what we call growing up is just learning to hide it better so nobody will lock us away” (Robert Anthony Siegal).

  • “Nero” by Louise Erdrich (The New Yorker) was just depressing.  I didn’t really fall for this story, but the dog got to me.
  • Golden Light @ Pixa Bay – Free Illustration (Creative Commons)

    The way light is fractured through a window is retold in the story “A Golden Light” by Rebecca Hirsch Garcia (The Threepenny Review).  It’s one of the rarely hopeful, but then hope-squashed stories in the collection.

  • “Fairness” by Chinelo Okparanta is a disturbing story that immediately made me worry about my students and the “salt and ice challenge.”  It should be read after reading a “Cosmopolitan” magazine or obsessing over people you don’t know on social media.  Or, just listen to some Beyonce and then read this story.  A girl is obsessed with lightening her skin based on the standards set by overseas societies. BLEH.
  • I hated “The Inheritors” by Kristen Iskandrian (Tin House).  I’d almost even skip it if reading this book again.

“I like being sad, which mystified her; I like it until I reach the nadir where sadness changes, as if chemically, to repulsion and self-loathing, making me wish that I was “capable” of “handling” things instead of turning away from them in disgust until my disgust disgusts me, and my anger at my inadequacy as a human being angers me, and all of that pure, easy, delectable sorrow gets squandered” (Kristen Iskandrian).

  • “Deep Eddy” by Michael Parker (Southwest Review) is the only flash piece in the collection.  It’s about virginity and dating and how both of these things make us question everything.

“She’d lost her flower with the first of a string of boys and she liked me only in the way girls like those boys who make them forget, temporarily, some pain I hoped was only temporary” (Michael Parker).

  • The next story was kind of sad because the girl character was the worst version of myself. It’s set in Venice (I think, but I’m questioning myself now), called  “Oh, Shenandoah” by Maura Stanton (New England Review). I often say to my boyfriend, “I just want to hug you so hard it hurts” when he does something incredibly annoying.  This chick is like me in that situation, but to the extreme. And the boy, just daydreamy and unable to understand any of her cues.
  • “Opa-locka” by Laura van den Berg (The Southern Review) is about a team of sisters who fulfill their childhood hopes by becoming personal investigators. At the time, they don’t understand their need for this odd job, eating gas station snack foods on roofs in a stake-out, but as the story progresses, the reader is clued into their past and why they might need these rooftop rendezvous, for each other and just for themselves.

This O.Henry Prize Collection is one of the best I’ve read in a long time.  Not only were most of the short stories meaningful and worth the read, but I can mostly remember each one even though I read some of them as long as a month ago.  This is a collection of stories that linger and each story gets redefined as you think of it again.  I HIGHLY recommend this book. HIGHLY, HIGHLY, HIGHLY, Mountaintop.

 

 

 


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