Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Classics Project: Rebecca

I've been having trouble sleeping for the last week or so, and while that is not terribly beneficial to my physical or mental health, I have been reading. A lot.


Rebecca is a novel of romantic suspense by Daphne Du Maurier. I have a vague recollection of watching the Alfred Hitchcock movie a very long time ago, but I remembered little in the way of plot, only a vague sense of impending doom (which, to be fair, is present in all of Mr. Hitchcock's films). Interestingly, I did not realize how recent the book is. By recent I mean 1938 as opposed to sometime in the 1800s.

The start is slow. Really slow. Honestly, if this book had not been part of The Classics Project I would have given it up in favor of something more interesting. The writing often feels stilted and unnecessarily florid. As for the main character, well, let's just say I've held conversations with pillows that were more interesting than her.

The story starts off in the wealthy and transient town of Monte Carlo in the south of France. The narrator (and main character) is working as a companion to a rich, obnoxious American woman. She gets swept off her feet by the charming, intelligent, darkly moody, and recently widowed Maximillian de Winters. The very first part was interesting enough. It felt like your basic romance. There's no doubt about who the players are - the highly experienced but flawed man and the naive young girl. Yet even at the beginning a thread of suspense pervades the story that is less normal for your typical romance. This thread is strengthened and broadened as the narrator elopes with Mr. de Winters and returns to his home, Manderly.

From the beginning it is obvious that there is something very wrong with the circumstances of Mr. de Winter's late wife's death. We don't know what. We don't know why. All we know is who: Rebecca.

Rebecca is fascinating as a literary device. She's the title character. She's the catalyst for the book's conflict. And she is never once actually appears in the book. We see her only through what she left behind. Her room. Her clothes. Her monogrammed handkerchief with her elaborate capital "R." Through the memories of the Manderly staff and the local townspeople, we see her as a beautiful, vivacious woman who was good at everything (though, we learn, that is hardly the whole story). We also see her through the extended fantasies of the narrator.

The narrator constantly pits herself against this dead woman and constantly loses. She's incapable of making decisions, accepting the stern and hateful rule of the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who worshiped Rebecca. She floats along in a cloud of doom and gloom that is positively exhausting. What sympathy can there be for a wet blanket of character who constantly bemoans her lack of interesting qualities? In that regard, I quite agree with her. Basically, the narrator has no agency for the first half of the book.

I was about ready to give up on the book entirely when my partner suddenly remembered having read it in high school English class. "Go on," they said. "It really picks up after the ball scene."

And it did. I hit the ball scene about five minutes after that conversation and the book finally got interesting. I won't go into details, but a secret was revealed that changed the whole scope of the novel. While the narrator is still ridiculously uninteresting, she at least begins to, you know, do things.

William Bernhardt, my writing teacher, once put it this way. Your character should struggle, not suffer. No one enjoys watching someone suffer passively chapter after chapter. Instead, we want to seem them try, attempt, rail against; we want to see them struggle. In a strange moment of self-cognizance, the book gave me this quote:

"I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth."

Which pretty much sums up what I didn't like about the book.

Honestly I think the book would have been ten times better if Mr. de Winters had been the main character. Yes, the secret twist would have been ruined, but we would have a character with action, with ability. A character that does more than bemoan her lank, overly-straight hair. Seriously.

I will say however, that the second half of the book wasn't bad. It was fast paced (especially in comparison to what had come before it). If you like a good romance and don't mind an empty narrator (a la Bella Swan), then this book might be just up your alley.

Honestly, I probably won't give Ms. du Maurier a second chance. Rebecca, her supposed opus, was mediocre at best. Ah, well. Better luck next time.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Classics Project: My Antonia

It's been a while since I've reviewed a work of fiction. I've been so busy with school and other things, not to mention my recent nonfiction binge, but finally I've gotten around to it. And what a great book to jump back in with: Willa Cather's My Antonia.


My Antonia is the story of a boy growing up on the frontier of rural Nebraska, but more importantly, it's the story of a family of Bohemian immigrants and their daughter, Antonia (AN-toh-NEE-ah). Even though the story is told from the POV of the young man, Antonia is the sun his world revolves around. In a way, this is a small story. It's a coming of age story. It's a small town story. The scope is entirely limited to this one young man's life out in the prairies of Nebraska, to the people he knows, and the little pieces that make up their lives. Yet in another way, this story is as sprawling and magnificent as those fields of wheat, plowed into the land by sheer force of human will. As vast and grand as the blue sky that stretched over these pioneers bringing rain and wind and hope for a good crop.

Willa Cather skillfully paints the landscape as background and metaphor for the people who live there. Or perhaps, Antonia is the metaphor. She is strong, smart, kind. She works hard. She is never described as "pretty," instead we hear of her strong hands that can herd cattle. Her strong legs that can push a plow. Her burning, life-filled eyes that scorch themselves into the mind of one young man. She also never forgets the land that she left behind. In a way, this makes her the ultimate symbol for America. An immigrant, strong, hardworking - always pushing toward progress, but looking back to tradition, to where she came from. Idealistic, but flawed.

Because the reader experiences this story through the young man, we see his flaws arguably more than we see hers. He thinks he knows her. He thinks he's capable of understanding the world that created this young woman. He thinks it is the same world that created him. He judges her for passions, her lack of conventional propriety. He puts her up on a pedestal and pities her when she does not meet his narrow, privileged expectations. This is not to say he is an unlikable character. He's smart and has big dreams. He befriends her despite her immigrant status (or perhaps because of it). He loves the strength of her, the brightness that follows her. He chooses her over the doe-eyed Swede, Lena Lingard. But he is limited.

In a way, this book is entirely different from anything I've read before. The plot is gentle and real. There are no catastrophes, even the broken twists of life are written as normal and not melodramatically tragic. The story is as small as a single, not particularly spectacular, life, but as broad and far reaching as the prairie. Yet for me, there is something deeply familiar.

Like Antonia's family, my ancestors immigrated from Bohemia. They moved to the frontier of Nebraska, giving up their city trades, and choosing to work the land. They became part of that land. Their plows broke the soil, creating furrows of families that grew and expanded and survived. My connection to these mythical ancestors is tenuous at best. It is there in the poppyseed kolaches my mother makes. In the ridiculously vowel-barren family name on my grandmother's side (Hrdlicka; four consonants before they even get to a vowel!). It is there in the tiny, wood-bound bible I have in my china cabinet, the language foreign, but intrinsically fascinating. I don't have particulars. No detailed stories of pioneer women and their strength. It has all been blown away like sod in the prairie winds. In a way, I put these ancestors on a pedestal, just like that young man. They were idealized portraits of the attributes I find most compelling. But, like him, I will never truly understand their world.

My Antonia became something so much grander than a simple coming of age story. It filled the gaps in my roots with fertile soil, and whether the specifics are anything like the truth, it doesn't matter. Willa Cather reaches a broader truth. A resonating, simple, strong truth. She articulates that feeling of losing oneself in the vastness of the world around you, the magnificent grandeur of the past and the frontiers yet to come. In her words, "At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."

Friday, November 14, 2014

On the Importance of Reading Modern Fiction

In my creative writing class, we've been workshopping everyone's final projects. One classmate's work in particular prompted me to write this post.

Pic by enchantedwhispersart.deviantart.com

He's a good poet. He's smart. He's my friend.

But his prose leaves much to be desired.

As a self-professed reader of only books from 100+ years ago, he writes in a stilted, overdone way. His sentences are long and cumbersome. He uses too many ... shall I say grandiose? ... words all together. It feels like he's trying so hard to sound like Dickens. Or Wilde. Or Proust. Or, god help us, Sir Walter Scott.

Basically, his writing is stunted.

As a writer, it's important to read everything. Classics. Contemporaries. Fiction. Nonfiction. You should read everything you can get your hands on. If you purposefully cut yourself off from a section of writings (especially one as large as the body of work produced in the last 100 years!) you are doing yourself a disservice. Your writing will suffer.

So I've decided to get him a few new(ish) books for his upcoming birthday. These are examples of fiction written within the last hundred years that I feel every writer (and reader) should experience.

1. Catch-22


"He was going to live forever or die in the attempt."

Catch-22, published in 1961, is a work of satirical genius by Joseph Heller. Taking place during WWII, Catch-22 captures the insanity, the desperation, the rage, the inevitability of war. Written in non-chronological 3rd person, it follows Air Force captain, Yossarian, who hates war. Yossarian's central conundrum is that if he is crazy, he'll be discharged. But he has to apply for said discharge and applying for said discharge demonstrates that he is not insane, thereby no longer qualifying for the discharge. For him, there is no way out of war. 

The narrative itself is circular and reflects the nature of the "Catch 22" conundrum. It's a great study in the devolution of a character into insanity. Heller's language is clear and powerful. His characters are unforgettable. It's hard to explain Catch-22 to someone who has not read it because it is so singular - so completely different from anything else that I've read.

2. Slaughterhouse-Five


"Nothing intelligent can be said about a massacre."

In keeping with my first suggestion, here is another experimental, WWII, and entirely singular book - Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, published 1969. I've reviewed this book before (you can read my review here). Like Catch-22, Slaugherhouse-Five is shockingly revolutionary and completely different from Heller's opus. Again, it's hard to explain Vonnegut's most famous work. Actually it's pretty hard to explain any of Vonnegut. He writes a little left of reality and Slaughterhouse-five is no different. Jumping between the fantastical and the devastating, Vonnegut captures the essence of surrealism without dissolving into the abstract or the detached. Billy Pilgrim is the quintessential unreliable narrator and the book forces the reader to question reality at every turn. What is real? What is delusion? Is there actually a difference? Vonnegut's writing is gorgeous - sometimes whimsical, sometimes bare and raw. Strange. Startling. Disturbing. This book is definitely worth the read. 

3. The Cider House Rules


"People only ask questions when they're ready to hear the answers."

John Irving is by far one of the most skilled writers working today. The Cider House Rules, published in 1985, is astounding. It follows Homer Wells, an orphan who never gets adopted. Instead he begins to learn the business of medicine as instructed by Dr. Wilbur Larch, head of the orphanage and the only doctor around who is willing to perform abortions. As my mother is fond of saying, all of Irving's books are about sex and perversion, and The Cider House Rules is no different. But instead of coming off as sensationalist or cheap, Irving writes about the difficulty of living. The difficulty of being human. It is the most honest look at one of the most controversial topics of our time. In the guise of empathetic characters and beautiful language, Irving forces you to examine your own beliefs - your own choices. An orphan or an abortion?

4. The Poisonwood Bible


"God doesn't need to punish us. He just grants us a long enough life to punish ourselves." 

The Poisonwood Bible is easily my favorite work of contemporary fiction (again, here's my full review). Published in 1998, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is the story of five women and the missionary husband/father/abuser they follow. Travelling half a world away, from Georgia to the Belgian Congo in the 1960s, the Price family women each get their own POV. All five parts are written in first person and all five are incredibly distinctive. There's never any confusion over who's who and the shear technical ability Kingsolver displays here is worth the read. The fact that Kingsolver's technical talent is alloyed with a spectacularly compelling story makes this a rare find and a necessary addition to any personal library. The Poisonwood Bible is an astounding work woven of technical ability, social consciousness, and the intimacy of a family struggling to survive the ravages of the Congo and of their father.

5. 1Q84


"But pure, unadulterated feelings are dangerous in their own way. It is no easy feat for a flesh-and-blood human being to go on living with such feelings."

Published as three separate novels in Japan over 2009 and 2010, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is an excellent example of where modern fiction can go. In a way, it follows in the surrealist footsteps of Vonnegut and presents a world that is just slightly left of reality. The book uses the term "1Q84" to show the slight difference of this new world the characters stumbled into from the one they left, back in the normal 1984. Again, even that is a nod to previous work - this time George Orwell's infamous dystopia. In my previous review, I introduced the book by calling it an asymmetrical fairy tale. Murakami successfully captures the juxtaposition of a pre-mobile phone world and post-modern philospophy in his unique poetic style. While the book is definitely complex (and crammed together into a gigantic volume when it was translated to English), it's definitely worth the read.



It's very very difficult to pick only five books from the last 100 years and there are so many more that are worth your time. 
The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker. The Lord of the Rings (1937-1949) by J.R.R. Tolkien. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee. The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. Ender's Game (1985) by Orson Scott Card. Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury. The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Norman Juster.
And on and on an on and on, ad infinitum. As a writer, it's so important to read everything. Just read. Read every moment you can. 

Perhaps Stephen King said it best. If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time nor tools to write.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lost Girls: A Book Review

In the next iteration of my recent nonfiction reads, let me present Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker.


A tale of tragedy, vice, and murder, Lost Girls was both fascinating and frustrating. Even though the title directly tells you that the mystery is unsolved, there was a part of me that was confident that, given the evidence, I could figure out whodunit. But this is no clean Agatha Christie. It has no hero. No single villain. And no end.

Lost Girls is the story of the Long Island Serial Killer and five of his victims. Well, four depending on what you believe. Each of the girls is a sex worker who advertised through Craigslist, but while other authors might be tempted to emphasize the danger and seediness of these girl's worlds, Kolker does an excellent job of humanizing the girls. He starts out with a vision of their childhood and home life, the factors that lead to their career decisions. Their likes, their dislikes. Their dreams and ambitions and disappointments.

Kolker starts the book with an eerie prologue that sets the mood. A young woman, Shannan Gilbert, shows up at a gated community on Long Island. She runs from door to door, screaming that someone is trying to kill her. No one helps. The police take over forty-five minutes to show up. She disappears.

Alternating between factual evidence and anecdotal stories from family and friends, Kolker paints a broad picture. The tapestry is woven from the threads of these girls lives. From the reticence of the police and the community to care about "escorts." From the conflicting emotions of those left behind. This (sometimes) controlled chaos definitely makes for an interesting narrative.

Lost Girls does on occasion become confusing in its detail. With the vast cast of characters, the five main girls, and their alternative work names, keeping track of who's who can be a bit daunting. That's the difficulty of translating real life to a story. It's not always pretty.

Even with the inevitable disappoint, Lost Girls is a riveting story about the humanity behind the victims. It doesn't glorify the villain. It doesn't dismiss the victims. It strikes that precarious balance between voyeurism and information. Inextricably drawn into the mystery, the reader is forced to confront the fact that not all people are just good or just evil. That fate is never something one deserves. And most importantly, that not all stories have an ending.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Stolen Innocence: A Review

I've been on a bit of a nonfiction kick lately and it all started with one memoir. Stolen Innocence is the story of a young girl who grew up in the Fundamentalist Later Days Saints' community. Basically, when the mainstream Mormon church banned polygamy in an effort to get Utah accepted into the United States (you can read more about the history behind that here), there was a small group that broke off and continued the practice. Polygamy is one of those things that seems to go along with oppression of women and child abuse and I distinctly remember this particular group. The author is the main defendant in the 2007 case against the "prophet" Warren Jeffs. I was a senior in high school when this happened and I remember hearing about the case and, a year later, the police raid on an FLDS compound in Texas. That said, I really wasn't familiar with the details. I didn't know any names except Jeffs and I certainly had no concept about what the daily life of his followers was  like. 


The full title is Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs by Elissa Wall. That pretty much sums it up. The book starts out with the Wall's childhood - what it was like to grow up in the FLDS. I think the author does a great job of not vilifying the people who are caught up in this lifestyle. The majority of them were born into it and were never exposed to the outside world. Coming from a radically different background (on all levels), it was fascinating to me how "normal" aspects of daily life for them can be. They have hopes and games and family drama (though considerably more with multiple wives/mothers). Ultimately they are a family like any other. They want to raise their kids to live as good a life as they can imagine. They want a comfortable home and to feel secure with their place in the world. These memories of Wall's are painted with a warm glow and are pretty much presented the same way anyone's childhood memories would be. Even so, from the beginning there is an uneasy tension running through all the pleasant memories.

Wall's childhood, while idyllic at times, was also fraught with conflict. Conflict between the wives. Conflict between the children and the other mothers. Conflict between the sons and the father. Conflict between the family and the church. All of these stress pulled at Wall's family and eventually fractured it. When her father wasn't able to keep his children under control (several of the sons leaving the church permanently), her family was split up.

In the FLDS church, one of the core beliefs is that a man has to have three wives in order to reach the highest level of heaven. Wall's mother was the second wife and there was a lot of trouble between the two women. The first wife, having not been raised in the FLDS church, was not terribly comfortable with the arrangement and didn't know how to interact with a second wife, often choosing to be domineering and authoritarian (keep in mind this story is being told from the point of view of one of the second wife's children, so grain of salt...). After the head of the church - at the time it was Rulon Jeffs, heavily assisted by his son Warren - found out about the family's struggles, Wall's father was assigned a third wife. It was thought that the new addition may have a calming effect on the household, but no. The family's troubles continued. Eventually Wall's father had his second and third wife taken away from him. The trauma of having your family destroyed on the whim of some old man is devastating. Wall does a magnificent job of showing us the effect it had on her and her siblings. 

Matters only got worse with Rulon Jeffs' death. His son, Warren Jeffs, takes over and imposes new restrictions on the community. He marries many of his father's wives. He forces all the followers to take their children out of school. He shuts down community gatherings, even church. Basically the entire community gets more and more isolated, everyone terrified that they will be the next to be banished, the next to have their family taken away.

Warren Jeffs (at the back) with some of his wives.

Elissa Wall eventually became the lead defendant in the first case against Warren Jeffs. When she refused to conform to the expectations of the church, he forced her into an abusive marriage at the age of fourteen (obviously illegal). He was tried and found guilty in a civil suit, then with the raid of the Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldoardo, Texas, he was eventually found criminally guilty and sentenced to prison where he is still serving out his sentence.
 
I can't imagine the level of fear that these people lived with on a daily basis. I can't imagine the isolation and helplessness of those who were brave enough to leave, but who often had no where to go. No resources. No family. Often they didn't even have some sort of ID because their births were not officially recorded. This whole reality is so far removed from my realm of experience that it's difficult for me to remember that Stolen Innocence is nonfiction. But it is. As much as memories can be. 

There are flaws with the book. Wall is very obviously not a writer. She was assisted in writing this book by Lisa Pulitzer, but even so, the language is often awkward and inelegant. On that same note, the pacing is iffy in places, occasionally dragging the story down. But even with the book's technical flaws, it's an exhilarating read. I read this as research for one of my books, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone who's looking for an interesting (and terrifying) real life story. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

One Little Spark of Madness: Thoughts on Bipolar Disorder and the Death of Robin Williams.


I am surrounded by bipolar disorder these days, from the tragic loss of Robin Williams, to my new novel, and my own demons. I recently finished reading An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison which is basically the preeminent work on manic depression. Dr. Jamison is both a renowned psychiatrist and a survivor of bipolar disorder which gives her a unique perspective on the disease that affects around 5.5 million adults in the United States.

I was diagnosed with Bipolar I when I was 18 or 19. It took a long time to get a proper diagnoses, and I was originally treated with antidepressants with disastrous consequences. Eventually I was put on a mood stabilizer which actually worked to suppress the extreme cycling between mania and depression. Most people (including an earlier version of myself), don't understand how treatment, once you find a medication that works, is still nearly impossible. But in my case, my meds took away a large part of who I am: my writing. It took a long time, but I've finally decided that it's not worth it. I need to write. If I can't write, I don't want to be "normal."

For Dr. Jamison, medication was the only thing that kept her from self-destructing. That was the decision that worked for her, and in the end, it's all about survival. What do you need to make it to the next day?

Robin Williams fought that fight for a long time. Sixty-three years seems like an impossibly long time to me. But in the end, his disease caught up with him. And that's what bipolar disease is. It's just as inevitable - and just as physical - as cancer. For those of you who are interested, here's a medical article about the physiological aberrations - from differences in brain structure to neurochemical changes - that are part and parcel with bipolar disorder. And like cancer, bipolar disorder can be fatal.

Robin Williams's death has brought mental illness into the public eye in a heart-wrenching and visceral fashion. "How could someone so funny be so sad?" people ask. But that question is flawed. His humor was part of his pain. Watching him at his highest, his funniest, his most improvisational, was like watching an advertisement for mania. When I found out that he was bipolar, it made so much sense. And it gave me hope. He was brilliant - having finished four years at Julliard - and successful. He'd not only survived, but he seemed to thrive. That gave me hope for my own future, for my own fight. He was more than a comedian for me. He was in no small  part a hero. He'd won the fight.

And then he lost.

When I first heard the news, I refused to process it. Denial.

Then I was illogically angry that everyone was saying he had depression. Yes, depression was part of it, but it was more than that. He was bipolar. Just like me. For some inexplicable reason, it felt like they were diminishing him. Anger.

Maybe if people only understood. Maybe we should be more open to the discussion, because many people still have no basic frame of reference when it comes to mental illness. Maybe if we lived in a society where his pain - and not only his humor - could have been part of his public identity, he would have found the way to keep fighting. Bargaining.

I should have known. There really isn't any hope. This disease kills. Ernest Hemingway. Sylvia Plath. Vincent Van Gogh. Jack London. And many others whom history doesn't remember.

And now Robin Williams.

So what hope is there for me?

Depression.

Honestly, I intended this post to be a review of Kay Redfield Jamison's memoir and I'll probably write another post about that incredible book. But instead it's become a eulogy. A love letter to the struggle. A desperate attempt to understand so that maybe, just maybe, I can move on to that final stage - both in terms of this recent loss and my own struggle.

Acceptance.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Mistborn: A Book Review

The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson has been on my reading list for quite a while. I love epic fantasy, and I was first introduced to Sanderson by way of Robert Jordan's epic Wheel of Time series. When Robert Jordan died before finishing the 14 book series, Sanderson took over. Both Jordan and Jordan's wife thought Brandon Sanderson could handle the job. I was apprehensive at best, but he surprised me. His writing was stylistically different, but well done. He took the characters I had fallen in love with and continued their development organically. Actually, one of my favorite story arcs of all time is in the books Sanderson wrote. He did WoT right.

So naturally I had high expectations for his own original works.

The first one I read was Elantris which wasn't bad. It wasn't amazing (or even above average), but it featured an epidemic and I'm a sucker for diseases.

Even so, when a lot of my fellow fantasy readers recommended the Mistborn series, I thought I'd give him another chance. After all Elantris was his first widely released book, so maybe he's gotten better. He certainly was great with WoT. So I finally got around to reading the first in the series.


Here's the basic premise: In a world covered with ash and shrouded at night in mist, a young street-rat girl, Vin, discovers that she can use allomancy, a form of magic. She has to learn to control her powers, learn to trust other people, and overthrow the authoritarian god-king.

The plot itself isn't anything new. The execution is average and the writing is average. If I had read this in high school (when I was more indiscriminate) I probably would have enjoyed it. As is, I won't read it again. It's not bad, just not quite up to my standards.

I do want to say there are several things I thought were well done and would have elevated the book if the plot weren't so mediocre.

Firstly, he writes Vin, the protagonist, fairly well. He doesn't stick her in the middle of a love triangle (even though he totally could have). She is self-reliant and skilled. She's deeply flawed when it comes to interpersonal relationships, though to be honest I'm a little sick of the "broken girl learns to trust" gimmick. But he does a fairly good job at writing a female protagonist. Sadly, the vast majority of side characters are male (I only remember two female characters that Vin interacted, both of which were portrayed negatively).

Secondly, his magic system is unique and interesting. The basic idea is that Allomancers (magic users) get their powers from consuming and "burning" metals. Only certain pure metals and alloys are useful. Most can only use one metal, and thus only have one power. These are called Mistings. However there are a few select people who are capable of using all the metals. These are called Mistborn. The magic system is new and dynamic and Sanderson executes it well. It's unusual to find a system this unique that works, so that's a definite plus.

So if you're looking to read something easy and you like fantasy, than Mistborn isn't the worst choice. I might even end up reading the rest of the trilogy since the ebook I bought has all three. On the other hand, there are a lot of other books I would recommend before this one.

Friday, July 25, 2014

365 Day Photo Challenge

My boyfriend is a photographer. A pretty great one. (Check out his gallery here!) But he felt like he was in a bit of a rut. Now as a writer and a visual artist, this is a state with which I am intimately familiar. So he decided to start a new project to jolt him out of stasis. The idea is that you take at least one picture everyday. You can take more, but you have to pick one per day. He even started an open Facebook Group for anyone who would like to participate.

Now I am not nor have I ever claimed to be a photographer. But the idea of documenting one year out of my life in a single picture per day sounded interesting. So I decided to give it a shot.

I'm not using a fancy camera, just my phone. I'm also posting everything through my instagram (you can follow my instagram here). Yesterday was day 52 for me. I'm honestly surprised I've lasted this long and I wanted to share what I've done so far. Don't expect Annie Liebovitz or Ansel Adams. Instead expect random moments of my life. And cats. Lots and lots of cats.


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If you are interested in joining the Facebook group, just click the words "Facebook Group" up in the top paragraph and request an invite. It's open to anyone who wants to give it a shot!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Flight Behavior: A Book Review

So I think I'm in love.

I wrote a review a while back about Barbara Kingsolver's spectacular novel, The Poisonwood Bible, of a family of star-crossed missionaries in Africa. It blew me away, and, honestly, I was a little hesitant to read another of her books. How could it possibly be as good? But I finally gave one a shot.


Flight Behavior follows Dellarobia Turnbow, a young woman desperate for a change in the hills of Southern Appalachia. One day, she climbs the mountain behind her house, determined to throw away the life she's been living - two children, a nice if uninteresting husband, a family she never really belonged to - but something stops her. In what verges on religious transcendence, she discovers a miracle. No, a phenomenon. No, a catastrophe. I don't want to give away anything, but what she discovers surpasses her understanding and the understanding of the scientific community.

In one breath, her life is overturned. Her church suddenly views her as blessed by God. Scientists venture into this small backwoods town to study the phenomenon. And well-meaning tourists disrupt the stagnant balance that had previously been Dellarobia's existence.

At first, I was a bit reluctant to relate to this character. Not because of how she was written but because of my own prejudices. Dellarobia is basically what I've always heard called "poor, white trash." She married before she graduated high school because she got pregnant. She stayed with her husband even though that meant a life of diapers, and cleaning, and putting up with the matriarch of this sheep-farmer family. She traded the young, brilliant, enthusiastic woman that she was in for a dollar-store, made-in-china, washed-out version of herself. As someone who grew up poor, it wasn't her poverty that turned me off. It was her absolute hopelessness. But that changes pretty quickly.

At first she sees the phenomenon that landed in her backyard as a sign from God. A sign of beauty and hope. She's not sure what to make of it, but she believes with a child-like certainty that it portends of good things to come. Then the scientists come.

The head scientist - a graceful, brilliant, foreign man - makes such an impression on this sheltered young mother that she falls almost instantly in love. Not exactly love for who he is, himself, but for what he stands for. Education. Knowledge. Opportunity. She quickly offers her land for his use and he sets up a portable trailer house and a makeshift laboratory. The more she learns, the clearer it becomes that this wonder in her backyard is a tragedy of catastrophic proportions.

Flight Behavior skillfully portrays the small dramas of this Appalachia town, complete with the exciting new opening of a thrift store the next town over. It shows the humanity of those who live paycheck to paycheck and the casual apathy that is almost required to survive in the cloistered, claustrophobic atmosphere of a dying small town. It presents, addresses, and demolishes prejudices and assumptions held on all sides. The intensely conservative distrust of science, outsiders, and anything new. The highly educated's arrogant assumptions regarding the inferiority, inability, and lack of self-determination with regards to the uneducated. It's strikes all the universal chords of family, ambition, privilege, respect, and that quintessentially human thirst for something .... more.

It made me question my own prejudices. It forced me to consider a new point of view. It compelled me to recognize the fact that I cannot know all of someone else's circumstances. That each person is valid and contributes to the humanity of us all. The main character grows immensely throughout the book and takes the reader along for the ride. It shows us that something can be both beautiful and heartbreaking. That a person can be both tragic and strong. Victim and oppressor. Ignorant and brilliant. That for what it's worth, each individual matters. And that in the face of overwhelming odds, it's worth fighting.

The writing itself is beautifully crafted, and I must admit, Barbara Kingsolver may give my all-time favorite author, Margaret Atwood, a run for her money when it comes to beauty and lyricism in writing. It looks like I've got a new favorite author, so now comes the hard part. Which of her other books should I read next?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Orange is the New Black Season Two: A Quick Review

So as many of you are aware, Netflix released Season Two of Orange is the New Black last week. So of course I watched it in the first two or three days.


I, like many others, fell desperately in love with the women of Litchfield prison during Season One and waited (im)patiently for my next fix. Well, it's finally here. And it's over. Again.

So while we're waiting for Season Three (fingers crossed), I thought I'd share some of my thoughts.

1) I'm glad they're getting away from Piper's story.

Yes, I like Piper. Yes, there's plenty of drama and conflict to keep me interested, but honestly I love finding out more about the other women. Let's face it. Piper's your pretty standard middle-class white girl who's never satisfied with what she's got. No judgement for those of you who love her. Heck, I basically AM her. Maybe that's why I tire so easily of her story.

So who wins for most interesting character of Season Two?

2) Poussey Washington


Seriously. She's basically my favorite now. Both her back story and in-prison story were spectacular. Wrought with emotion, sacrifice, courage, and damn good writing, Samira Wiley's incredible performance left me gobsmacked. 

Throughout the season, Poussey finds herself in intense situations. Between her unrequited love, her issues as a military brat, and the increasing violence of newcomer Vee, Poussey elevates the tone of Season Two. Her story goes beyond conventional genres, like OITNB as a whole, encompassing the best parts of comedy, drama, and tragedy. 

Basically I love this character. Period.

3) Speaking of Vee....


Finally we have someone who can actually challenge Red. Vee, a recidivist and drug dealer, has strings already tied to several of the main characters. She's a mother figure to Taystee, a some-times friend and rival to Red, and a hurricane of conflict all on her own. She's arguably one of the strongest characters in the cast. She's smart, manipulative, and as solid as concrete. That said, I still can't decide if I like her. And "like" may not be the right word in any case, as the writers very solidly cast her as the villain. Honestly, I wish we'd gotten more of her backstory. It might have made her motivations more understandable if not all together sympathetic.

4) Was it as good as Season One?

Honestly, that's hard to say. Part of what made Season One so freaking amazing is that I'd never seen anything like it. It came out of left-field and shone like a beacon in a sea of television mediocrity. I think Season Two holds its own when it comes to writing, performance, and humor, but it lacks the intrinsic shock value of Season One. This time I was expecting greatness. And it delivered. Maybe not as intensely as the first season, but yes. Season Two is great. 

So there you have it. How far have you watched? Who's your favorite character? Let me know what you think in the comments! 


Friday, June 6, 2014

Phenomenal Woman: A Remembrance of Dr. Maya Angelou

Dr. Maya Angelou touched many lives in many different ways. She was a brilliant writer, poet, dancer, and humanitarian. For me, she has always been a part of the fabric of my life.


I grew up in a household where her name was common. My mother loved her work and quoted her often. For me, her name was associated with lyrical fragments and reverence. I actually did not read a complete poem or any of her prose until I was much older. Instead she just existed as a part of my childhood background.

Like Maya Angelou, I grew up in rural Arkansas. Every time we drove through Stamps on our way to Texarkana and beyond, my mother would turn me.

"Grace, do you know who lived here? Have I told you?"

"Yes, Momma."

"Maya Angelou grew up here. She was the same age as you."

"I know, Momma."

I accepted her existence with the casual indifference of a child. She wasn't real to me. She was a name, a few pretty words, but she had my mother's admiration. I knew she had to be something wonderful.

Through high school and college, I read a few of her poems, but not in any concerted manner. One verse, one image, did stick to my mind. Maybe it spoke to my adolescent sense of sexuality. Maybe it was the celebration of a woman's body. Maybe it was just the rhythm of her words. But they stuck with me.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

It wasn't until a few months ago that I realized how much in common I had with her. I finally picked up a copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It blew me away. It was beautiful and tragic and harsh and uplifting. It was lyrical and gritty and intense. I was in love. 

Though I have thankfully not suffered the same tragedies as Ms. Angelou, I knew the town where she grew up. It was my town. Her neighbors were my neighbors. Her culture, my culture. It made me want to write about my childhood, about that isolated southern world were we both spent our formative years. 

Then on May 28th, 2014, Dr. Maya Angelou died. 

I've followed her on Facebook and that's where I heard the news. I was devastated. She had always existed for me. She was woven into the fabric of my understanding. She was gone and I would never get to meet her. I had to tell my mother.

That was a call I didn't want to make. I knew my love for Ms. Angelou paled in comparison to that of my mother's. I avoid the topic at first and then blurted it ungracefully. 

"Momma ... Maya Angelou died."

For the last week she's been on my mind. I see snippets of her poems and inspirational quotes everywhere. I've started my second novel that takes place in a small southern town and I see her in my words and characters. When I picked up I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I also bought a copy of her most recent autobiography about her relationship with her mother, Mom & Me & Mom


I skipped all the books in between because the central theme of the novel I'm writing focuses on the loving and destructive dynamic between a mother and daughter. I started and finished the book in a day.

It didn't have the same powerful impact as Caged Bird, but it was well written. It lacked some of the flowing lyricism, but I'm sure that's just an evolution of her writing style. She talked about her mother with the same awe and admiration I often feel for mine. Their relationship was tumultuous. Her mother left her at the age of three with her paternal grandmother. Betrayal, abandonment, and love wove a strong thread between these two strong women. It is definitely a book I would recommend, but only if you've read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. That book I recommend over all others.

And thought I'm sure many of you have read this in the days since her passing, I leave you with a video of the poet herself reciting her amazing work "Still I Rise."