Tag Archives: book review

This Isn’t “Chick Lit” Because “Chick Lit” Shouldn’t Be a Thing….Ever.

The Shore by Sara Taylor (Bailey Prize Winner)

Today, I will ask you to preorder The Shore by Sara Taylor (Bailey Award Winner 2015).

In three days, you will have a sea scape of time in your hands in the form of a book.

It will take you across generations, through twisted murders, plots of revenge by medicine woman, how women are courted two-hundred years from now after a sexually transmitted disease will act as population control, beg questions to women raised on the dotted line between high society and marshland due to their coloring, and ask the reader to fill in how a game of poker that becomes a dual rape and then becomes a marriage can produce children that are capable of knocking on the doors of strangers and explaining themselves.

“Plot Twist” Image (Creative Commons)

Plot Twist Image (Creative Commons)This book is incredible. And although all the strings are not tied neatly with a bow by the end, just the act of having to answer the questions posed for myself was a book on its own.   By the first chapter, I was hooked.  The plot twist at the end of chapter one was enough to have me begging the universe for a chance to read before falling asleep flatly in bed.  There’s so many strong women in this book, and not just strong because of their own intuition, but strong in the face of dirty hands.  One of my students wrote an excellent slam poem this week, I wish I could share it all, but in it she says the following, “I was in the tenth grade when I realized I was a little too sensitive.  That I didn’t need to cover my mouth when I laugh. Or agree with people who throw dirt on my name, because I now understand that those are the people with dirty hands and it will take more than just soap and water to fix the mess they have now made of themselves.”

Photo by Micah Taylor, Creative Commons

There are people who will always be against women.  They are the ones who only find strength in those who can lift cars, and not those who can lift hearts.  This book is an argument against those people.  It is words in a fictional universe that can debate those who don’t believe in equality among sexes.

“Chick Lit” (Creative Commons) Found @ chacha.com

“Chick Lit” (Creative Commons) Found @ chacha.comSometimes, as women, we get stuck between the place called “women’s fiction” and that place called “chick lit.”  I really believe that the Bailey Prize (once the Orange Prize) is trying to adjust this slim shadow area where women are allowed to reside in fiction.  There is just no place to rest in that crack on the shelf.  Most people who read this blog do so because they have read a book that has changed them, made them view the other in new light, made them remove themselves from the shadows and step into their own golden flare, or read just simply to exist in a place that goes beyond their reality, I believe that women’s fiction deserves this sort of place.  I believe it can fit on any shelf.  I believe women have gone voiceless for many centuries and their time is just now beginning to sprout in fiction.  I even believe, the blasphemous heathen that I am, that some famous “anonymous” writers or even writers that we praise for being so unadulteratedly manly, owned a coin purse (if you know what I mean by that).

Finished this morning

Finished this morning

The fact is, that women’s history hasn’t yet been fully told. It has not reached the deep cave of the mouth to be heard beyond a few whispered shuffles of polite feet behind armed men.

But this book.  This book will break barriers and do so with small chunks of women’s lives.  A moment, a pill of memoir (although fiction, but feels true in the carat that I keep my own womanhood) for each generation in a family that went silent to men until the last possible second.  Even in the end, there is a character named Sally.  In the beginning of the book, her grandfather gives the ultimatum to her and her brother, that one must stay on the island and take care of the shore house, one must remain distant from the mainland and focus their goals on maintaining a house that was never theres to begin with.  Who must that be? The girl of course.  The woman shoved on a shelf between pink covers and Water for Elephants.  This book says girls have been stuck for too long.

Window Seat Reading

Window Seat Reading

Girls can render guns.
Girls can steal the things that build their father’s up.
Girls can fiercely protect.
Girls can stay behind and build bigger.
Girls can leave the island.
Girls can choose not to marry.
Girls can use herbs to preserve the original foundations of their bodies until a time when they want to use them as vessels.
Girls can learn a history of the other powerful girls behind them.
Girls can be leaders, not led.

I have no other real way to proceed with this review.  This book is so hard to tie down like the women within it.  There are so many stories and they have all stuck, or pieces of them, and organizing them into some logical progression is beyond my ability.  I will warn you that for the first four or five chapters you will be trying to place the women on where they fall in the genealogical line. But don’t. It will come out in the wash.  The blues of it will run clear.

 

 


A Come Of Age Time Capsule

“I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them/
then blow gently,
watch them float
right out of my hands.”

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is an oration to the art of writing, the idea that writing is something inherent and must be done because stories will not just tighten around us like a belt, they will nag until they are told.  Brown Girl Dreaming is a seance to the old south, the South that had rules and regulations that were never discussed over polite dinner conversation, but posted like shouts over bathrooms, water fountains, bus seats left written-wordless.  And it is original in that it is a voice to the old (south) house through the eyes of a child that is now old enough to understand her childish notions.

“I do not know yet
how sometimes the earth makes a promise
it can never keep.  Tobacco fields
lay fallow, crops picked clean.
My grandfather coughs again
and the earth waits

for what and who it will get in return.”

southadamstreet1900.wordpress.com by image July, 1914 case against the Forum Theater owner AM Renne’s segregated seating. (Creative Commons)

I just don’t know what to say about this book.  It’s a perfect time capsule of childhood seeded in history.  We are living in history every moment of our life, even if it’s not necessarily happening to us personally (or it doesn’t feel that way).  Right now, I feel like I’m living the debate for marriage equality (which I believe in all equality in all ways), but I’m watching the treatment of LGBTQ people be questioned, be acknowledged, and be studied for understanding.

teflequityadvocates.com Search by image Photo under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/

In Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson shows the juxtaposition between Greenville, South Carolina, living with her grandparents who had a heavy hand in raising her, and New York where her mother kept her and her siblings until summer time.  She not only captures my current south extraordinarily; honeysuckles for taste, door-to-door ‘good news’, people who are the salt of the earth, and dusk porch talk, but she also credits the south with deep racism that remained long after the law accepted equality.  For instance, she tells stories about riding in the back of the bus with her mother, and only riding at night, swiftly through the expanse of crops to the city of “looking up.”

Jacqueline Woodson Jacqueline Woodson was born on February 12, 1963 in Columbus, Ohio. She was raised and educated in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York.

Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson was born on February 12, 1963 in Columbus, Ohio. She was raised and educated in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York.

At one point in the story, she captures my childhood of lying and storytelling so well that I stopped reading and tapped my boyfriend, “This, this here, this captures how I felt as a child, this is it. This book, it has me.”

“I am not smart like Dell so I watch her press
the silver moons into her ears
I say, I know a girl ten times as smarter than her.  She gets diamonds every time she gets a hundred on a test.
And Robert looks at me, his dark eyes smiling, asks
Is that something you made up? Or something real?
In my own head,
it’s real as anything.

In my head
all kinds of people are doing all kinds of things.
I want to tell him this, that
the world we’re living in right here in Bushwick isn’t
the only place.”

Lie Creative Commons

My mom tells stories about my childhood lies.  I lied compulsively until seventh grade when I learned that you can’t lie or you get kicked out of the lunch table with all the popular girls, and their blonde highlights, and cheerleading pleats.  Until then, I made up all kinds of things – where my siblings were going to college (had they even?), why I needed a little bit more money, where Toe Jam comes from, I probably could have catfished on Myspace before cat fishing was even an MTV thing.  I was intense. It’s because I had stories, and they wounded me from living in a reality where regular everyday just didn’t seem as wonderful as the things I could make seem true.  This is the same for Woodson.  She spoke untruths because she wanted to write the truths for characters.

And she did.

Creative Commons National Book Award

She wrote the truth of the South in a middle grades, National Award Winner.  I would pay to have this book printed for every single student I’ve taught the last three years.  It’s pure magic in that it tells a story that is so electrifying, but in the voice of a child, and in the form of poetry.  It takes all the scare out of poetry.  It has meaning, it has rhythm, it has purpose, but it doesn’t cause fear over whether or not the reader will be able to understand.

Woodson’s poetics work so well.  There are clear shifts in most of the poem sequences, and there are repetitive smaller poems (How to Listen series) throughout the book that remind the reader of Woodson’s lessons for herself, and her reader, and the future.  I’m amazed at what she was able to do in this book and I’m so excited about the future of young adult publishing after reading this.  Sometimes I don’t pursue young adult literature because I feel that it can be “dumbed down” when it shouldn’t be.  It should be just as well-written and meaningful as adult fiction is, but that’s not always the case.  With Woodson’s collection of moment-poems in her childhood, I am confident that young adults can attach to this narrator, her story, and the story of their history through her child’s eyes.

One of my favorite resources for teaching. And such a great message.

This is a beautiful, and fresh, telling of the Southern register in history, as well as the classic tale of coming of age for a girl who isn’t sure who or what she wants to, or should be.  I know that that is a concept that crosses all races, all genders, all sexualities, and all cultures.  Who will we be? And when will we get there? This story answers that question in one of the best ways that I’ve seen.  Be you, and arrest any idea that goes against that.


“A Pretty Stem Bowed Down from Neck to Bloom”

– A line from a poem I wrote when challenged by my creative writing students to participate in writing a ghazal with them.

“It couldn’t be fair to punish people for trying to get by, people who were good by their own lights, when it took all the courage they had to be good” (259, Robinson).

Sometimes it’s really hard to love my students.  Sometimes I need a constant reminder to be their champion.  It was especially hard last week after having a conversation with a child so bright that the earth could tilt the other way if she just knew how to get it spinning on her fingertip.

The day before we had been having a conversation about her goals and about how she couldn’t write essays on things that bored her (i.e. The characters in A Raisin in the Sun).  She had told me that her future job would “be fun” because she “got to work with bodies and such.”  We talked about what it meant to be a doctor and what a proud profession it would be. The next day, she refused to do ten vocabulary in context questions.  I immediately rode in with “You know to be a doctor, you’re going to have to determine, figure out, and use in real-life situations, thousands of words that you never even knew existed, with roots that span centuries of language.”  (It was probably less eloquent than that).  I was not a knight that day, I was letting the knife shave at my thread of hope.

She said, “I don’t want to be a doctor,” immediately, with head shaking and an imagined finger snap.

“A nurse then?”

“No, neither. I don’t want either of those things.  I could just as easily live off of the government.”

I didn’t have the right words to respond to this so I moved on to the next child with their hand up and watched as she worked out the meanings of the words based on the synonyms or antonyms or just clues in the sentence and life moved on, as it does.

But it frightens me.  Because there are days where my sympathy is worn out for their ideas about the world.  It’s not fair to judge them for this as they’ve only seen a small kernel of yellow daisies along a highway, and watched as the kids who can afford polos can afford college, and the kids who don’t get to choose a latchkey become Carolina red dust before someone can even sigh at their poorness.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

And then I came to Lila by Marilynne Robinson.  And for some reason every time I open a Marilynne Robinson book I immediately want to hate it, but I also know that I must finish it because the answers won’t come unless it is done.  I read somewhere that it was a like a triple crown winner of the publishing world, critics hoped it would win both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize (it didn’t, but it was expected).  The last thing I read by her was Housekeeping and I wasn’t the same after coming around it.  Robinson writes books that must be chewed on slowly, and then stewed about for a few days until the full expanse of what just happened to you can come alive and you can feel something.

This was not the case with Lila, I felt it precisely.

Lila is the story of Lila Dahl and her upbringing as a traveling (maybe migrant worker) in a group of lost causes after she is stolen from her family by a woman named Doll. Doll does her best to take care of Lila and throughout the book, Lila is eternally grateful (if she believed in eternity) towards Doll although the reader finds that Doll has pockmarks on her character, as does Lila.

That’s actually not even right.

Lila is the tramp of society, always on the fringes, the person you see in church but whisper about their ripped jeans at a Sunday service.  She is always coming out of the rain.  She is never accepted, or rarely.  And the people she travels with will have dirt under their nails, and a hunger that goes beyond bellies.  My grandmother would call them “unsavory.”  But she’s beautiful, and worldly, and conscious of the way her words work so she listens rather than speaks.  She’s curious and smart, and a bulb of good fortune to the people that meet her even though in her growing she knows nothing about the expectations of the Christian God.  She’s just genuinely good, and it isn’t often that this character pages up in literature, but I’m thankful I was able to read her grace on the page in this moment of my life.

I talk a lot about the way books come to me and about the way that I believe timing in books, like love, is everything.  Sometimes they come like a tiny children’s chime in a large choir, and sometimes they come like an old cartoon anvil.  I’m not sure how Lila came to me, but I needed her.

Allsbrook, W. (2014). Lila (New York Times)  [Drawing]. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/books/review/lila-by-marilynne-robinson.html?_r=0

Allsbrook, W. (2014). Lila (New York Times) [Drawing].
Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/books/review/lila-by-marilynne-robinson.html?_r=0

This book is also a love story between an old preacher and a lost girl.  It’s an adult Peter Pan story almost.  Reverend Ames makes eye contact with Lila in the last pew, and although it seems unlikely, their love is nestled between the hair of a gap where her head nuzzles his shoulder.  The entire story the reader wonders if Lila will do as she daydreams and leave the Reverend, go back to the shack in the woods where she’s left a sharpened knife and a few half eaten dandelions.  I think the reader knows the whole time that with this kind of love story, there is almost nothing to wonder about.

“And her life was just written all over her, she knew it without looking, because that’s how it was with all the women she used to know.  And somehow she found her way to the one man on earth who didn’t see it or maybe he saw it the way he did because she had read that parable, or poem, or whatever it was” (223, Robinson).

I am amazed at how Marilynne Robinson can make a story in the mind of just two or three characters, with barely any plot in the present tense and it move me the way pine needles bustle in heavy wind.  Lila is my students, Lila is anyone who has ever felt in just one instance that their whole life has just been one big kitchen sweep, Lila is me.

“I got feelings I don’t know the names for.  There probly ain’t any names.  Probly nobody else ever had ’em” (183, Robinson).

Rich fictional technique: Marilynne Robinson  Photo: Ulf Andersen @ Telegraph

Rich fictional technique: Marilynne Robinson Photo: Ulf Andersen @ Telegraph

And the Reverend is every man a woman might want to fall in love with.  He comforts in times of comforting.  He takes a few days after listening to Lila’s curiosities to think them over and then deliberately makes time to talk through them, without answering outright, but actually whispering his truths and attending to hers.  If there was ever a book that taught feminist theory in the way that I believe it to be, it would be this one.  Lila is herself.  She is strong and brilliant, but she has “shame like a habit,” and she never wants for a man, but when she meets the reverend it is like a letter written as an answer.

“She thought it was nothing she had known to hope for and something she had wanted too much all the same” (257, Robinson).

The first book set in Gilead (one of three)

And this brings me back to my student.  My student who is seventeen and unsure of the world, but has to act sure or else it will make her kneel to its wants and needs.  I think today, even more so than usual, we live in a society that looks down on the poor like they’re lepers.  The divide is growing between the super rich and the poverty poor and I’m not sure at this point what is being done to stop it.  And it’s easy to write them off, I know that.  It’s easy to say that they won’t amount to anything and not champion for them.

But then who would?

I think sometimes it’s hard to realize what a poor child begins with at eighteen.  One of my most cherished students has his name on most bills in his house because his mother’s credit is so bad that she has had to use her children’s names.  He said “Ms. M, I have to call and put my best man voice on this afternoon so the cable company will come out and install our cable.”  When his mother doesn’t pay the bill in a few months because she couldn’t get enough hours, his credit too, like hers, will be ruined.

The second book set in Gilead

And explain then how he will get loans for college and he’s supposed to push through when he’s taking care of his mother rather than doing your homework.  He, too, is Lila. We are all a bit Lila, but I look at my kids like soldiers, and then I look at them like slowly beating hearts.  They don’t know what way they’re going because everyday is a new day.  Sometimes they’re just bodies that think and talk and “seems to want its life one more day of it, you don’t have to know why” (179, Robinson).

And I needed that reminder, of the single human battle.  The battle to rise and be greater than you were yesterday even if you have all those yesterdays that say that you can’t do that, and you won’t amount to anything more than yesterday on yesterday.

Well, Lila argues that and values that and uses that.  So read her, like she’s writing you a love letter about how change doesn’t have to come from one decision, but a bunch of small experiences that don’t pile up, but are each presented, each their own small golden token.


Newsday Tuesday

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You Have Two Options: Bake a Pie or Watch Beauty and the Beast

Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

….instead of reading this book.

Let me preface this two different ways:

  1. I will read any book with the word bird in the title (because I’m a word bird).
  2. I don’t often read middle grade recommendations.  The last middle grades category book that I read was Wildwood by Colin Meloy.

I should probably also preface with:  I’m a jaded reader.  This is just to say (William Carlos Williams) that I don’t like the predictable, the old worn fable that’s not told in a new way, the “everything falls into place” (ex: The Kite Runner), and I definitely don’t like kitschy magic (See: The Ocean at the End of the Lane).

Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

I’ve gushed over Alice Hoffman before.  Normally, her magic is just that, pure magic.  The kind you can hold in your palm and it mutters into the air and before you know it, you’ve followed the unlit candle into the dark and someone is a witch, and another woman has unearthed her dead husband, or called to her side a forgotten mother.  She’s more of a quilt maker than an author. This, Nightbird, was not that.

Twig in my yard (TWIG)

Twig in my yard (TWIG)

Nightbird is the story of Twig (fabulous character names) who has a strange and lonely family and is not allowed to hang out with other people in town because her mother has a secret hidden in the attic.  Throughout the first few chapters, the reader learns the family secret as it relates to the witch’s cottage at the edge of the orchard.  Coincidentally, the family that is a descendent of the beginning witch moves into the cottage and the whole secret becomes anew (with pie, young best friends, and an herb garden). Twig runs into a lot of members of Sidwell (the small town on the fringe of a great wood).  Authors seem to believe these people actually live in small towns (librarians, town historians, men who study owls of the woods, sisters of the witch, community theater directors that direct plays involving a small town history).  I’ll have you know though, since I live in a small town with a Main St. and a Church St. (and all the churches are on Church Street), our town librarian does not know the history of every child born in the town.  While this is quaint, this isn’t (Wyoming). Is Wyoming like that? I’ve probably read too many novels.

Alice Hoffman @ Wikispaces (Creative Commons)

Anyway, Twig is the loner that becomes the example.  This is the moral of the fable.  (Well, she doesn’t become the example, but her family does, as they change the tune of a town that believes in tragedy and stereotyping).  I will say that this book was tenderly written.  I could tell that Alice Hoffman wanted to reach a nine-year-old girl that searched the landscape of paned windows for enchantment.  I think between eighth grade and thirty years, a girl would struggle not to feel like this was a corny version of an adult Alice Hoffman novel.  (Corny was the best word I had there).

What is especially corny is the town’s simple acceptance of the hidden fantasy secret.  I really don’t want to ruin this for anyone, but in small town, American, cultural history even when people have seen “the other” do something wonderful, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to change their preconceived ideas about this “other,” ESPECIALLY when they haven’t known this “other” their whole life.  Small towns are notorious for gossip, judgment, and stereotypes, especially when very few people have left the town for most of their life (making the town the majority of their world view).  I’m sorry if I’m offending anyone from a small town, I do adore my small town of cotton fields and broken-hearted barns, but I can say with all honesty that I’ve never seen more of the listed.  The people of Sidwell just accept this mystery straight-off.  And even when the mystery changes towards the end, there is no response to the newness from the townspeople.

Beauty and the Beast (Creative Commons) @ Arts Journal

If you need a good monster hunt (like the town claims they will have one night due to some deviant’s unfortunate graffiti art), just watch Beauty and the Beast.  It will take you just as long as it would to read this novel, and at least you’ll get a musical.   The townspeople in Nightbird will be toting knives and bats, but with Beauty and the Beast you have clubs and pitchforks, so that’s just … much more exciting.

My biggest problems will come in the form of a list so I can try not to give things away:

  1. Very little character development of the pivotal climactic character.
  2. The mother in the book is significantly agoraphobic, but gives out pies like friendship bracelets.
  3. Small Town America (Photo by Pierre Metivier via Creative Commons)

    The morning men (aka the older men who sit around the diner table discussing town news) have a chorus of opinions that are never heard but from Twig’s mouth.

  4. The characters leave and return with little information about what they were doing or why they returned, or why they even went in the first place.
  5. The fire department at one point refuses to put out a fire.
  6. The townspeople know each other, but since Twig has returned little to no one has tried to be her friend, so much so that she walks around practically unnoticeable until Julia moves to town and refuses to do anything BUT hang out with Twig.
  7. The descendants of the witch aren’t witchy at all.
  8. Julia explains to her sister that there’s a secret, and that she’s the direct descendent of the cause of this secret and so she has to turn back the secret.  The older sister just naturally accepts and creates an outfit based on all of this for funsies (I mean WHAT THE HECK is happening here).
  9. Pacing was slow and incredibly boring for so much “magic.”
  10. By “magic,” she means one character who is bound to a spell and has a quirky body issue.

As per usual, I’m one of the only people on Goodreads that feels this way.  I’m a Grinch.

Abby and I: Post-Turnover

Abby and I: Post-Turnover

If you’re like me, and you’re jaded, the best part of this story is the descriptions of the pie.  Mmmm, I can almost taste the pink apple.  Reminds me of the hilled orchards where Abby and I enjoyed baked apple turnovers from a barn warehouse in Tennessee.  I would eat my own hand to get at one of those turnovers. In fact, I’d rather use this book as a recipe collection than I would an actual novel.

Really, just “Control F” and find the secret ingredient of the pie and make a few rather than spending that two hours to read this book.

 

 

 


Newsday Tuesday

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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!

 


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