Sunday, December 30, 2012

Mistake by Meredith Stricker

Mistake: a series of ritual actions, expiations, griefs, Orphics, overprints sieving, sowing
by Meredith Stricker

To better understand this collection of poems, I read Mistake twice. After the second time, I got a better handle on it, and my respect for what Meredith Stricker has accomplished grew, but I preface this review by saying that if you are looking for a good, critical eye for this book, I won't be the most thorough. My poetry vocabulary is limited, but I will do my best to talk about this particular reading experience.

And it is an experience.

Divided into seven sections, the poems are inspired by Freudian slips, mislaid type, Darwin's "tangled bank" metaphor, Orphic Hymns, and the Zen forgiveness ceremony of ryaku fusatsu — which pays "attention to accidents, overprints, flaws, the discarded, the unwanted, the cast-off." Mistake is a swirling examination of loss, choice, and inevitability. The words often overlap or have otherwise unusual spacing, and one has to be very present in order to read it. There's no drifting off and thinking of other things here, otherwise the meaning is lost without beginning again. Though it's not a very long book, nor does it take a lot of time to read, it is still not "easy."

Sometimes a soul does not know it is a book when living, whose pages can never be completed in a final, perfect, finished sense, but are continually translating themselves just as leaves fall and translate the forest, chaparral, grassland in succession and no street adheres to its past self, just as leaves fall and leaves love us and traffic is humanity surging out of the boundaries of its skin

There are allusions to the recent Japanese tsunami and irradiated damage left from a nuclear power plant, though this is not exactly what I would call an environment-themed book (even if everything is an environment of some sort). I loved lines like, "if death is the stain we cannot live / without," and "I will not be smoothed out / fur, roughened," even if sometimes I felt like I was only grasping 3/4ths of what I read.

In the very last section, "There was a wilderness," it ends with my favorite part of the entire book:

I'd recognize you anywhere across crowded


the ink not yet dry on your fingers

both of us now

belong completely to our

distance, taste of salt

on our lips

Without scanning pages, I cannot do justice to the layout of the pages, the way text often repeats or is crossed out. It very much mimics the chaos of a noisy brain attempting to process some major life event. Mistake is a volume I will likely reread once more, as now I feel compelled to better understand. Even flipping through for the purpose of this review, after my two full-reads, I already notice more about what is happening on the page. I wouldn't say I loved Mistake, but I liked the challenge, and anything that makes me want to revisit it is probably a good thing. Students of poetry, I would certainly recommend doing the same.

Full Disclosure: Caketrain Press sent me this book at my request. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Beautiful Anthology edited by Elizabeth Collins

The Beautiful Anthology
edited by Elizabeth Collins

Although beauty is subjective, sometimes our culture seems to decide, collectively, what we "should" consider beautiful. Is it straight teeth? The right outfit? A certain weight? Time period and geography change the ideal, but The Beautiful Anthology considers a more personal definition, beyond the "shoulds" of the world. Twenty-seven writers contribute to this collection with essays, stories, and poems all aiming at expanding what it means to be beautiful.

Each entry has an accompanying image. Most are photographs, but a few drawings are also present. The images, even if pulled from old films that stand apart, are interesting in their own way, even without the words. I'm particularly fond of the more contemporary fine art photos, with the subjects' expressions appearing to contain entire universes unto themselves. Laying out the book in this way is a nice touch, as when we first think of beauty, we often think of it in a visual way.

[T]he French term belle-laide keeps coming to mind. Literally translated as "beautiful-ugly," it is an adjective usually given to a woman or girl whose looks are beautiful to some, ugly to others. In short, it denotes a hard-to-pin-down, hard-to-describe woman.

Many people don't understand this term because it seems self-negating, but I think it is a very interesting and appropriate idiom, encapsulating in its way all the dichotomies and debatable areas of life: how one person's beauty, or what one finds beautiful, is not always appreciated by others.
  • Elizabeth Collins, from the Foreword

Perhaps the greatest example of something under-appreciated is Steve Sparshott's essay, "Fin," about urinal dividers. "You probably wouldn't notice as you're suffocating in the stench," he writes, "but they're incredibly elegant, simple, sculptural things." His essay is short (I mean, how long can one go on about urinal dividers? Well, probably longer than I think), but it's also very funny, and it's one of my favorites in the book.

There are contributions from more well-known authors like Gina Frangello, Greg Olear, and Jessica Anya Blau, but some of my other favorites came from writers I'd never encountered, to my memory. Nora Burkey's "The Politics of Beauty" is excellent, an essay about working at an all-girls school in Cambodia. All these Western people swoop in with their money and act as though they should be the white saviors to an "illogical" country.

At the dormitory, a different American woman, this one younger and agreeable to everything [the school's director] Paul said, asked if I'd be willing to show the girls how to wash their hands better. She said this is something they often neglected because they didn't really know how. Their "backward" parents had never taught them. She also complained of them not wearing deodorant. They were teenagers, after all, and should have been concerned about the smell of their underarms.

I declined her offer. It was not the students duty to be beautiful like me, clean like me. Was it fair to ask them to be cleaner when they showered with a cold hose they shared with twenty-nine others and lived off ten dollars of spending money a month? Thirty teenage girls with no toilet paper or tampons, who would do anything for the chance to go to school, could keep their hands dirty if they wanted, I thought. Who was I to call this backward? Time doesn't go that way.

These are people who more or less live outside, in a hot climate. There are different expectations and it is a different reality. And a bottle of Pantene Pro-V still costs $4.25 in a country where most people live on less than a dollar a day. Burkey is much more circumspect than I would be writing about these school employees — I'd be more like, "Fuck them for thinking it's just a matter of deciding to be the Western-version of clean."

Another essay I really loved was J.E. Fishman's "Spinning." It's about tennis and the most perfect serve he ever hit, but it's also about the tennis pro named Rob, who was teaching lessons while coming back from a shoulder injury. Tennis is about the only sport I watch on TV, and so perhaps that increased my enjoyment, but I think anyone will see the beauty in what happens here. I won't pull quote it — you'll just have to read it.

Other highlights include Ronlyn Domingue's essay, "Milkweed and Metamorphosis," Catherine Tufariello's poem, "Meditation in Middle Age," and the essay "Crazy Beautiful" by Melissa Febos. Most everything in the book is quite good. I wasn't wild about Tyler Stoddard Smith's "Truth and Booty," as it seemed to be trying a little too hard to be clever, but nothing is outwardly bad in this anthology. It's wonderful, thought-provoking, and worth passing along to anyone else who might be grappling with their own definition of "beautiful."

(This review now also appears on Persephone Magazine.)

Friday, December 28, 2012

With My Body by Nikki Gemmell

With My Body
by Nikki Gemmell

I know, I know, this is the year where a million reviewers say, "Don't read Fifty Shades of Grey, read this!" I'd like to think that it's because that novel's popularity is only exceeded by its awfulness, not to mention the number of people who hate-read it. But seriously, if you want lots of sex in a novel that isn't necessarily "erotica," then With My Body is certainly a better option.

It's not that With My Body is a perfect book, but it is certainly compelling and a bit unusual for the narrative devices it uses. (Does it seem like I just said that in a review? Well, yes, but...) For one thing, our female protagonist is never named, and everything is written in a space somewhere between first and second-person. Sentences sound like this: "You feel too much, think too much; the intensity of the fantasies, every night before sleep." She is writing to herself, about herself, remembering a time during her teenage years.

With the story set primarily in Woondala, Australia — though also bookended by an adult existence in England — the protagonist feels dissatisfied with the person she's let herself become. She's nervous, prone to anger and detachment, and wishes she was a better parent. She and her husband could have a better marriage, but she's unsure of what to do, that is, until she starts writing down the story of her past.

Once, long ago, you were made tall and strong by the shock of someone who cherished women and was not afraid of them, who revered their bodies. Men like that are extremely rare and when a woman finds one she recognizes profoundly the difference in the lovemaking and is forever changed; that man becomes a paragon by which all others are measured and you are lucky, so lucky, to have found it, once.

Each chapter is instead a "lesson" and begins with a short bit of advice, followed by the story itself. The advice is from an old book she discovers, A Woman's Thoughts About Women, on the shelves of the man she meets at nearly seventeen. The author is anonymous, but she is drawn in by the woman's easy voice, "a certainty you've rarely known." In this way, With My Body is meant to mirror this reading material.

Everything leads up to or stems from her relationship with a writer named Tol, a man who has kept himself in a semi-secluded house in order to get some work done. He lives near the home her father and step-mother share, and she only discovers him during one of her many school break bike-rides that intentionally limit her time with the step-mother.

He looks up when he is done as though he is looking for approval and his lashes are so dark and you can see the little boy, suddenly, the child he would have been, the vulnerability he rarely shows; that you want to hold in the cup of your hands, here, now; that you want to bow down to and murmur on with your lips.

It is easy to forget how young she is while reading because even before this meeting, she already seems older and observant of the world. She hungers for affection, yearns to absorb all the good she can because it all seems so fleeting. There is a lot of truth to her thoughts, however limited by experience that they are, and though, yes, she is underage and he is not, it never comes across as creepy. Others might disagree, especially those who have never felt this way at any age, but when one takes into account the intensity of teenage emotion, especially when it comes to first love, a mutual love... Yes, it is easy to forget her age. This "paragon" becomes quite the person for which all of her future unknowingly strives. No wonder she is disappointed by everything that came after when, once, she had the complete, solitary attention of a man. And he, the solitary attention of her.

His eyes shine as he looks at you, his funny little scrap of a bush thing; his voice cracks and veers into something else. 'From love. And with that comes the best kind of sex. Because it's tinged with a … a reverence. It's almost like a holiness fluttering in you both.'

While With My Body is a story of romance and of awakening, it is also a story of damage. Every character punishes themselves in some way, and they often have huge blind spots when it comes to their personal mental health. So many of them do not know how to express their desires — not just the sexual ones — and their shame is often a problem. There's a lot going on here beyond an illicit affair.

Some of Gemmell's writing can get repetitive — "bush thing" and "rangy" appear countless times as descriptors — and occasionally, the sentence fragments lose their art and just lie there as unsatisfying pieces. For the most part though, I really did enjoy this book. I found a great deal of beauty in the relationship, even with its mysterious disappointments. Tol and the girl are studying one another as they enjoy themselves — they want to learn how to be treated well. I understood her yearning and the transformative power of the right kind of love, at exactly the right time. We should all be so lucky.

Full Disclosure: This book was sent to me by Harper Perennial. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

(This review now also appears at Persephone Magazine.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My Top 5 Underrated Books of 2012

Yes, everyone is doing some sort of year-end list, but we all know how I feel about good lists in general. I already covered the five favorite books I read this year, whether they came out in 2012 or not. Now, I'd like to point your attention to five other reads that perhaps received less attention, but are no less worthy. Here they are, in no particular order:

Echolocation by Myfanwy Collins

(from the review:)
"I will admit that the first fifty or so pages of the book were tough for me to read, not because of their quality, but because of the depressing subject matter. Lost limbs, neglectful mothers, discussions on whether or not they should shoot the feral cats living out back — all of it is heavy, especially when I read it at a time of my own dubious mental clarity. However, that should not dissuade anyone, as those are my problems and not the book's. I wanted to keep reading; I cared about these women despite the urge to look away from the reminder that people like this do exist in the world. Everything in this slim book serves a purpose, even the scene regarding the cats, and that purpose sneaks up at the end in such a way that I have to admire Collins' skills. The details are at once circular, woven, and carved like puzzle-pieces, everything straddling the line between inevitability and choice."

The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov by Paul Russell

(from the review:)
"Paul Russell is a lovely, immersive writer, and while the story was such that made me carry on reading at an anticipatory clip, occasionally I would stop and marvel at the skill of his sentences. Now, I don't know enough about Vladimir Nabokov's writing to know if Russell's style pays homage at all, but he is subtle about the way he presents everything. The over-the-top characters like Cocteau or the ballet enthusiasts feel natural – By that, I mean that at no point does the writing sound like, “Look at me! Look at me writing these characters oh-so-dramatically!” And given the unassuming, shy nature of Sergey, it makes sense that his narration would be that way as well. He reports what happens and how he felt, but he is not about to call any extra attention upon himself. To be paid attention means scrutiny, and scrutiny leads to judgment, and the times he has been judged, the results are rarely in his favor. Still, Sergey has an incredible mind attuned to beauty, and Russell's fictionalized version of him makes me wonder what writing this “other” Nabokov could have accomplished, had he lived longer and been encouraged to explore it."

The Boys of Summer by Ciarán West

(from the review:)
"The story, its pacing and content, is absolutely enthralling. [...] [West] wants to make you uncomfortable, yet you want to press forward. The narrative speeds along breathlessly, all culminating in an ending that's simultaneously inevitable and unbelievable.

If this book were published by Harper or some other big publisher, I am confident that it would get scores of attention. As a small release, I've seen it well-received, and I hope that my review directs at least a few more readers its way. Yes, I know the author, but I do pride myself in being fair. The Boys of Summer is worth your time and money."

The Detour by Andromeda Romano-Lax

(from the review:)
"What an impressive, thought-provoking novel this is. Set in 1938 Germany and Italy, The Detourpresents a man who must weigh his love against his duty, all while existing in the broader picture of pre-WWII. We know what is ahead, and this purgatorial state stirs up all sorts of questions about idealism, loss, connection, art, and the perils of authoritarian states. I hadn't heard of any Andromeda Romano-Lax's work before receiving this book, so this was a fantastic surprise.

The writing in this is just... Well, I know I overuse the word "lovely," but that's what it is. Lovely. Full of love for the Italian surroundings, the people swept up in this crazy shift, and none of it comes across as heavy-handed, which might be something of a feat when discussing Nazi Germany."

Companion to an Untold Story by Marcia Aldrich

(from the review:)
"How unspeakably sad it must be to lose a close friend to suicide. How can we find the words or the understanding for their state of mind? Marcia Aldrich and her husband Richard lost their friend Joel in this way. Because it is not as though she can conduct an exit interview, she can only speculate about the moments that led to his death, how one point informed another. But rather than write a biography or a typical memoir, the examination is conducted as though it were a reference book on Joel's life. It's an indirect approach to processing her grief.

Not every writer would be able to pull off a book like this, and I don't know how much attention Aldrich has received for her effort — apart from winning the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction — but I suspect that it isn't what it deserves."

That's four novels and one memoir, all of it excellent. Do hit up your favorite (indie) bookseller or perhaps your library (make a request, if they don't have it!) and give them a go. You won't be sorry.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Internal News: 12-22-12

Greetings, all. We're headed into Christmas, and should you need some reading material, here's what I've written lately in places that weren't here:

Persephone Magazine:

Notes From Elsewhere at Word Riot:

  • 12-4-12: among other things, lots of Word Riot author updates, thoughts from both Anthony Bourdain and Warren Ellis, and the Bibliomat!
  • 12-7-12: free ebooks, Spokane represents on the NYT Notable list, bad sex writing
  • 12-22-12: featuring lots of good "Best of" Lists, including one from a hedgehog, plus a great poem, and calling out some classist shit.

Finally, Pajiba recently published my review of Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman. Cannonball Read 5 will be upon us soon, friends.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair

Because I checked out this book from the library and have already had to return it, this is more of a mini-review than my usual more full-on attention. Since I really enjoyed Tabish Khair's The Thing About Thugs, however, I didn't want it to go unnoticed here.

Set in Victorian London, Khair's novel offers multiple points of view at a time where someone is decapitating members of the underclass. Many suspect Amir Ali, a man hired by Captain William T. Meadows to speak at his phrenological society because of his supposed "thug" background and interestingly-shaped skull. Readers know who the killer is, and it's interesting to see all these different sections of society woven together into one story. Perhaps most notably, we also get to see how Khair himself was inspired to write the book. The way he inserts himself into the story is a bit unusual for most novels, unless those novels are of the more whimsical Lemony Snicket variety, and though it takes some acclimating to get a handle on everyone, I quite liked this narrative method.

In some ways, the darker elements and seeing the killer's point-of-view reminded me of Patricia Highsmith's work, though she did not set any of her stories (that I know of) in Victorian times. The methodical way everyone justifies their bad behavior, killer or not, is also very much like her. The difference is that Khair doesn't write with underlying disdain for society. There is still an element of magic, though not the fantastical kind. It's magic in the form of hope, the willful suspension of disbelief, and the transforming power of a good story. I certainly recommend tracking down this book.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Companion to an Untold Story by Marcia Aldrich

Companion to an Untold Story
by Marcia Aldrich

How unspeakably sad it must be to lose a close friend to suicide. How can we find the words or the understanding for their state of mind? Marcia Aldrich and her husband Richard lost their friend Joel in this way. Because it is not as though she can conduct an exit interview, she can only speculate about the moments that led to his death, how one point informed another. But rather than write a biography or a typical memoir, the examination is conducted as though it were a reference book on Joel's life. It's an indirect approach to processing her grief.

Aldrich, Marcia. I myself, friend, spouse, and secretary, reader, sorter, scrivener of my past, mortographer and augur, maker of lists, reciter of lines, inspector-reluctant of things the dead leave behind.
If I have been chosen, let me choose. If I have been called to speak, let me speak with unreluctance about an unknown man, as he appears before me, looking on with inhuman eyes, as he was in the last visit, and before and after, the pivot between friendship and the aftermath, now freed from his torn and tired life, and feel that the words are his by right, with the strength and order of letters' law.

The academic approach works, with its footnotes and references to other entries, since everyone's life overlaps and backtracks in this way. If I may make a reference to another endeavor, our lives are a ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff**, and so the "companion" model does not feel gimmicky. A straight-up memoir could have fallen into more saccharine, overwrought territory. Instead, Aldrich is matter-of-fact, yet still deeply feels the loss:

Of course we had reached the wrong conclusion about the package and the answering machine. I later asked myself, when my emotions had quieted: Where did we miscalculate? Had we misjudged Joel's wish to vanish without a trace? Did he believe his last words to me were too obscure to interpret? Only much later did I understand: The post office was too efficient, and Joel expected me to receive his last things when he was already dead.

There are letters, bits of other documents, conversations with family and friends — all of it comes together to form a more complete vision of Joel and his unrelenting depression, from Age at death. (46) to "Zen Suicide" (a poem by Richard from 1979, sixteen years before Joel's death). Though of course there's not a typical plot, I found myself rather invested in this peacemaking process, for it can apply, in some ways more tangential than others, to other deaths, both little and life-ending. Companion to an Untold Story is an excavation of trauma, and we do not have to know Joel, nor Aldrich and her husband, to know the gravity of their loss.

Plan. We did not see the subtext beneath Joel's extraordinary behavior, but I ask myself what we would have done if we had. What if we had confronted his impending suicide? If I see that the last fawn is dragging its legs, what am I going to do about it?

The somewhat disturbing part of reading Companion, and I'm not sure what percentage of readers will also feel this way, is that I recognize how Joel saw no other way to deal with the blackness he felt inside himself at all times. Though I've not been seriously suicidal, I know the monster that is depression, and in Joel's desolation, there is familiarity. Some readers might find themselves wondering, What separates him from me? How have I chosen to keep on living? Perhaps some will find this comparison tough to take.

Still, I also see the kindness in Joel's method. If suicide was going to remain inevitable, he carried it out in a way that would be the least damaging to those he left to hear the news. I won't spoil the details in this book of details, but again, I recognize the flickering urge to not make oneself a burden.

Not every writer would be able to pull off a book like this, and I don't know how much attention Aldrich has received for her effort — apart from winning the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction — but I suspect that it isn't what it deserves. Yet, Companion to an Untold Story is not a project that set out wishing for accolades. (Let's be honest, writers, we won't turn down praising-recognition of our work.) Though I can only infer her intentions, it seems to me that Aldrich wanted this book to be the best way she could memorialize her friend, and in that, find some acceptance. That others may identify and find value in it, I imagine, is but a wonderful gift.

Full Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy from University of Georgia Press. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

How to Be a Woman
by Caitlin Moran

According to some corners of the lady-blogosphere, I'm supposed to be annoyed with Caitlin Moran for not being the "right" kind of feminist. As though our desiring equality is also supposed to be synonymous with with uniformity. Not long ago, Moran was asked, through Twitter, if she, during her interview with Lena Dunham had asked about "the complete and utter lack of people of colour in [G]irls."

Moran, though she later said in this Salon interview that she should have been less "brusque," replied to the tweet, "Nope. I literally couldn't give a shit about it."

I broke my own first rule: Be Polite. But I was frankly offended that this woman thought me and Lena Dunham were somehow conspiring in some undefined racist plot, simply by telling our stories about slightly overweight spotty girls just trying to get on in the world, and tell a few jokes about our thighs. I’m not going to wank on about the ethnic mix of my friends and, indeed, family, but I found that first tweet presumptuous, rude, and about the worst thing you could accuse anyone of. I’m bemused by the notion that there should be rules in story-telling that mean you should have to tell everyone’s story, all the time. Clearly that’s not the case. No one’s ever done it, and no one ever will. I wrote ‘How to Be A Woman,’ not ‘How to Be ALL Women.’ I would never presume to speak for 3.3 billion women. There is no ‘one voice of feminism.’ There is no ‘one voice’ of anything.

Yes, How to Be a Woman is promoted as a type of feminist manifesto, but it's really more of a memoir. Moran talks about her experience of growing up in Wolverhampton, England during the 1980s and early '90s, home-schooled and a bit overweight, crammed into her house with her parents and eventually seven siblings. She wants to talk about how she came into feminism, a feminism outside the the Women's Studies World.

Again and again over the last few years, I turned to modern feminism to answer questions that I had, but found that what had once been the one of most exciting, incendiary, and effective revolutions of all time had somehow shrunk down into a couple of increasingly small arguments, carried out among a couple of dozen feminist academics, in books that only feminist academics would read, and discussed at 11 P.M. on BBC4. Here's my beef with this:

  1. Feminism is too important to be discussed only by academics. And more pertinently:
  2. I'm not a feminist academic, but, by God, feminism is so serious, momentous and urgent that now is really the time for it to be championed by a lighthearted broadsheet columnist and part-time TV critic with appalling spelling. If something is thrilling and fun, I want to join in — not watch from the sidelines. I have stuff to say! Camille Paglia has Lady Gaga ALL WRONG! The feminist organization Object is nuts when it comes to pornography! Germaine Greer, my heroine, is crackers on the subject of transgender issues. And no one is tackling OK! Magazine, £600 handbags, Brazilians, stupid bachelorette parties, or Katie Price.

And they have to be tackled. They have to be tackled, rugby-style, face down in the mud, with lots of shouting.

Moran's feminism is a populist feminism that concerns itself with the everyday shit women have to endure. She's not saying that bigger issues like pay inequity and abortion are unimportant, nor is she saying that no one should be an academic, but rather that women need to decide how they feel about the things they encounter in their own lives. If you are an academic, a politician or activist, those bigger issues could very well be your everyday fight. But me, for example? My battles remain more in the realm of how can I feel good about what I'm doing, especially while raising my children. How can I direct my kids into being more compassionate, unprejudiced humans?

This isn't just a "We need to teach our daughters to be strong" matter — it's also about teaching our sons not to be the assholes who came before. And perhaps more importantly, I'm hoping that they will not fear or hate anyone who is different than they are. They will be imperfect, as we all are, and sometimes they will be contradictory in their worldview. No one is immune to this, but I figure it is better to make the effort, however incrementally, to improve. We don't have to be one with the universe, but if we dislike, say, waxing our tender bits, then we should feel free to ignore whatever pressure we feel to do so.

Yet, when we meet a lady who does wax, who genuine feels better by doing so, or maybe she just isn't over that particular insecurity hurdle? Well, she's not instantly "anti-feminist" for doing so.

So, no, Caitlin Moran isn't flawless, and she isn't pretending to be either. She's the first one to admit that it's actually her husband who is a "better" feminist than she is. On a small scale, despite saying we need "lots of shouting," on the very next page she says that we don't need shouting to fight "patriarchal bullshit," but we need to laugh at it instead. Does this make her inconsistent? Maybe, but I don't view it as a fireable offense. There are days to be mad, and days to laugh while saying, "Are you for real with this ridiculousness?"

Besides, Moran is someone for whom humor comes easily — of course she'd rather make jokes. Making jokes does not inherently mean she does not take the subject seriously.

That's not to say I'm with her on every point. For instance, her stance on strip clubs seems a bit short-sighted. She says they "let everyone down," and that at them, "no one's having fun."

Now, it is true that a large percentage of strip clubs do not treat their dancers right, and that there are customers who do not treat them right, but I doubt that is 100% the case (as, again, there's no "one way" of anything).

But what are strip clubs and lap-dancing clubs if not "light entertainment" versions of the entire history of misogyny?

Any argument in their favor is fallacious. Recently, it has behooved modish magazines to print interviews with young women who explain that their career as strippers is paying their way through university. This is thought to pretty much end any objections against strip clubs on the basis that — look! — clever girls are doing it, in order to become middle-class professionals with degrees! Ipso facto Girl Power!

If women are having to strip to get an education — in a way that male teenagers are really notably not — then that's a gigantic political issue, not a reason to keep strip clubs going.
She's right in that it is a political issue that we do not have the same culture that would allow women to openly express pleasure at seeing a naked male form, in the same way that men have the opportunity to do so, but it is not a reason to get rid of strip clubs. The underlying misogynistic culture at some strip clubs should be changed, yes, but "change" does not mean the absence of dancing women. There are problems to be dealt with, but condemning (what I see as) a public form of sexuality isn't the answer.

A couple of pages later, Moran says:

Just as pornography isn't inherently wrong — it's just some fucking — so pole-dancing, or lap-dancing or stripping, isn't inherently wrong — it's just some dancing. So long as women are doing it for fun — because they want to and they are in a place where they won't be misunderstood, and because it seems ridiculous and amusing […]

Right. Because the other ways in which people make a living are all for fun, and there's never any misunderstandings about who those workers are as people. Yep. Oh, and are you saying that pornography doesn't have the same misogynistic problems in some venues?

No, she's not saying that pornography is an exploitation-free zone, but if she's generally okay with porn, I guess I don't see why she should be so hostile towards the existence of strip clubs. Also, as far as the generalization that "gay men wouldn't be seen dead" in your average strip club, but will support burlesque shows instead — Well, for one thing, your average strip club is mainly about getting aroused by women, an activity I'd venture that most gay men aren't so interested in. It's fine if you prefer the artistry behind a burlesque production, but that doesn't mean everyone has to prefer it.

Work to change the problems within the venue, but don't burn the place down and salt the earth.

There are other contradictory viewpoints that Moran holds, but you know what? I still really enjoyed this book. The stories that are specific to her life, particularly her relationship with her sister Caz, are great and often hilarious. I wholeheartedly respect that Moran remains unapologetic in her writing, and I think that just because How to Be a Woman exists does not mean she won't one day change her mind or better articulate her thoughts on certain subjects. As we all do.

Some cranky writers have dismissed her work as "Feminism 101," to which I'd ask, "Oh, you never had to take a 101 class? My, look at you! Sprung into this world so fully-formed and serious!"

Ladies and gentlemen, we all have to start somewhere.

Full Disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book as a review copy. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

ETA: This review now also appears on Pajiba.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Internal News: 12-1-12

Oh, hey. Kinda forgot to update you all on what I've been doing lately. I've also got another book review cooking that will be up here within the next day or so. First off, let's check-in with the P-Mag updates:

In other news...
I think that's it. I'm overdue for a new Notes From Elsewhere, but one will be up soon.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

AKA... That Time I Met Noel Gallagher

AKA That Time I Met Noel Gallagher

Yes, I met Noel Gallagher. It was surprisingly easy, not entirely premeditated, and out of all the questions I have ever wanted to ask him, what happened? I asked a silly one that's been stuck in my brain since 2007.

After locating my friend's house where I was staying and going to lunch with said friend, I made my way back into downtown Portland and found the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Three buses sat parked on the street around back, and I thought, Hmm. Interesting. I looked at my phone -- 2 hours or so to kill. Either I'm just ahead of the sound check, or it's just started, I bet. I stood there near one of the venue's back doors for a minute and realized I could hear "Talk Tonight" being played. A few minutes passed. Two local security guards who were watching the buses noticed me.

The woman asked, "Are you waiting for a ride?"

Let's see, what is the level of pathetic-ness to which I am willing to admit? Let's go with... "No, well... I'm waiting for a friend who was supposed to meet me."

"Oh. I was just going to say, you probably don't want to stand under that overhang."

I looked up at the metal grate-style balcony above me. "Oh, does it drip?" It had been raining off and on all day.

"Yeah, and the pigeons seem to aim for people."

"Ah! Okay! Thank you!" I moved closer to the steps where the guards stood, pretended to be interested in my phone, and had to get my umbrella back out again. Yes, I needed to find something to do, but not too far away because I'd been walking all day, and despite this luck of having seen the buses, the man was already inside. Him wandering outside for a smoke break was not guaranteed. No point in standing around, being that person, when there were perfectly good happy hours going on nearby.

I ended up at a place across the street from what appeared to be the security entrance to the venue. There was a catering truck and an equipment truck parked and blocking most of the view, so I was not really paying attention to it. Instead, I called my husband, chatted with the waitress, and drank $3 gin and tonics near the back, by the bar.

(Before anyone accuses me of being a bit too thematic with my drink choice, I did originally ask for gin and ginger ale, but the place brews their own ginger beer instead, and it's not part of the happy hour specials. And "Supersonic" references notwithstanding, gin is my favorite liquor.)

I had finished about half of my second G&T when... well, the best way I can describe what happened is Spidey-Sense. Suddenly, I had this automatic instinct to look out the window and across the street, and I saw a flash of familiar brown-grey hair walk outside. Within seconds, I had sucked down the rest of that (delicious) drink, paid my tab to my understanding and speedy waitress (I tipped well), and I was out the door.

No Noel to be seen. Two girls stood nearby, one of whom wore a Snow Patrol hoodie. "You just missed Noel Gallagher," she said.

"Did I?"

"Yeah, we said hello to him," the other said.

"I love how he talks," the first one said.

"Motherfucker," I muttered.

"He just went around to his bus, I think, but I bet if you stood by the corner there and waited, you'd catch him."

Bless these Snow Patrol fans.

"Thank you," I said. "That is exactly what I'll do."

"He's wearing a black leather jacket," one of them called out as I walked away. I thanked them again, but thought, Ladies, please. I know his jacket. It replaced the one that was lost/stolen in his luggage during the Dig Out Your Soul tour.

(Related note: Over-studied him, who me?)

And so I waited. In the rain, under my shitty black umbrella. I started doing stage manager math: Okay, if they let people in around 7:30, then he will want to be inside around 7:00 so that he's not cutting through the crowd going in the door. It was around 6:40. I waited. I looked at the people approaching, leaned against the building, and re-noticed my poor far-distance vision. The rain stopped again. That person's too tall. That person doesn't have the right walk. Did he walk back in another door?

Waited. Watched the clock. At about five minutes to 7pm, I spotted him. Yes, he wore that known jacket and approached from the farthest away bus with his bodyguard . When he fell into earshot, I said, "Hello, Noel."

All cool and collected, like. As though I wasn't thinking, Jesus, I can't believe it was this easy.

A sly grin crept across his face. "Well, hello there, smiling lady."


"Will you sign my CD?" I said, for I arrived prepared, no matter how (un)likely this moment might've been.


I handed him my deluxe edition Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds and started to dig around my bag. "Let me get my Sharpie. I'm all prepared." I laughed at myself, and then I couldn't find the damn thing right away, couldn't remember in which small pocket in my bag I'd left it. So I say under my breath, "Oh, for Christ's sake..." and he laughs a little, not unkindly, and then, finally, I locate it and hand it to him. "Purple. All fancy, like," I said.

Because apparently my reaction to meeting one of my favorite people ever is to make my usual stupid jokes. That is how I roll.

He looked exactly like I thought he would. Same height, just a little bit taller than I am. Same lines by his eyes. All of it. Maybe the gin assisted me, but my nervousness evaporated from the moment he returned my greeting. I'd heard he had a talent for that, putting others at ease. How interesting to experience it firsthand.

"What's your name?" he said.

"Oh!" Because it had not even occurred to me that he might ask. "It's Sara. With no H."

"Oh, like my missus."


"Yes," I said, much more reasonably and not in all caps. Here came the question. "Does she get annoyed when people try to stick an H on her name?"

"Like you wouldn't believe. Especially when I do it!" He laughed again.

"It is the question all Saras ask of each other when we meet."

He handed me back the CD and Sharpie. "There you go."

Before he could walk away, I asked, "Can I shake your hand?"


We shook. His hand was dry and warm, and because of the cold, mine was thankfully not sweating. "Well, I'm sure I'll enjoy the show," I said. He nodded and carried on walking. When I looked down at my CD, my heart rate began to tick back upwards. ALL CAPS texts were sent. Twitter informed. Somewhere in 1996, 13-year-old me exploded.

Meeting him was both surreal and exactly as I might have imagined. I'd managed to not be an idiot, he remained very polite and not at all impatient. It might sound silly, but after spending sixteen years listening to the music, reading and listening to the interviews, reading interviews with people who have met/worked with him, etc. etc.... Well, I know Noel Gallagher as a Public Figure pretty well. Because of that, I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that it went as well as it did. I knew better than to ask for a photo because he doesn't really enjoy taking them. An autograph and a handshake were perfectly reasonable requests. I knew my audience, and he knew his.

It wasn't an interview, but man, it'll certainly do. There's time yet for more, one day.

I'll leave it at that for now, but stay tuned for my thoughts on the gig itself.

What a life, indeed.

Noel Gallagher - Portland, Oregon

(This post now also appears on Persephone Magazine.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Stereotypical Freaks by Howard Shapiro

The Stereotypical Freaks
by Howard Shapiro
Art by Joe Pekar and Ed Brisson

I will admit that, as an adult, I read middle-grade books almost never, and young adult books only slightly more often, but I was curious about Howard Shapiro's graphic novel, The Stereotypical Freaks, because it involved music and I have a soft spot for "Battle of the Bands" storylines. 

Because of my reading biases, I tried to make sure I approached the book from the viewpoint of a young reader and what they might get out of it, rather than interpreting the themes as meant for adults. Shapiro has written a touching story that, while imperfect, will still likely resonate with the pre-/early teenage set.

The Stereotypical Freaks is the story of four high school seniors — Tom, Dan, Marc, and Jacoby — who end up forming a band together, despite their different social circles at school. Tom is "the smart kid," Dan is "the geek," Mark (formerly Marcell) is the star football player, and Jacoby is the quiet Arctic-Canadian exchange student. Tom and Dan are best friends, and Tom and Mark used to play together as kids, before Mark was absorbed into the jock clique. The band comes from Tom's desire to impress Jaelithe, who is dating a stoner guy in another band. When they finally get it together and start practicing, Jacoby eventually reveals some distressing news that gives them a whole new perspective on their quest.

Shapiro divides the story into titled chapters, each with recommended listening. There are a lot of classics like The Who, Rush, and Bruce Springsteen, as well as songs from the '90s — a decade I'm not yet mentally prepared to admit has "classic" status — with songs from Rancid, Urge Overkill and The Replacements. I'm not entirely sure what decade this story is supposed to exist in, but Tom's hair and everyone's clothing suggests something more current. Because of that, I wondered why there were not any new songs listed, though it is entirely possible that the story is set in the late '90s (nu metal is mentioned). Of course, we all knew that kid in school who listened to almost nothing but old stuff, but even those music fans had a few more modern bands that they dug. With Tom being a fan of punk, I would think that his identification with that underground sensibility would have had him stumbling upon all kinds of bands online. I understand the urge to make the story more timeless, but if the book is aimed at younger readers, the playlist comes across a little bit like, "You kids need to acquaint your self with 'real' music." If I'm wrong about the timeline, then I suppose it just needed to be made more clear.

I mean, I like the recommended listening, but I'm almost thirty years old. Rancid's ...And Out Come the Wolves is a great album that any punk fan should have, but a teenage music fan is bound to have more than one band that "nobody" has heard of in their collection. Also — and this is a minor quibble, but it crossed my mind — if the band covers "Baba O'Riley," they need a keyboard player. I mean, Tom and Dan would have to be a pretty impressive guitar players to adequately adapt the song without one and still have it be any good. Maybe they are supposed to be, I don't know, but I think the song loses a lot without that additional instrumentation.

Another issue I had is that the characters, Tom especially, have a tendency to over-explain themselves and speak in a way that didn't feel natural. At one point, while talking to Jacoby about Jaelithe, Tom says:

I just over thought things. What if she said no? How would I be perceived in school? What would people think if they found out that I had even asked her out? How'd they look at her if she said yes?

It just doesn't seem like something a teenage boy would say out loud, in that way, outside the protective shell of a bedroom. I am more understanding of the internal monologue being very analytical and dramatic, as that's both typical of Tom's age and more traditional in the comic/graphic novel format. I guess my complaint is that the importance of different themes is overly spelled out, when maybe we should trust a younger reader to make that leap for themselves.

Still, like I said, I'm not the intended audience. Shapiro has still written characters that non-adult readers can identify with in some way, and Freaks reinforces the message that, no matter how together someone may seem, we all feel misunderstood at times and we all have our problems. It's meant to be a feel-good story with a hefty dose of perspective. I don't know if older teenagers would get much out of it for that reason — as Dan shows, high school seniors are well on their way to being cynics — but for the under-15 set? Sure. My eight-year-old daughter immediately picked up the book when it arrived in the mail and asked if she could read it when I was done with it. I said yes. Though I'm not highly concerned about it, other parents might be pleased to know that there's no swearing in Freaks. (Even if there was a bit, my daughter is currently the type to mentally go, "Inappropriate!" and quickly keep on with the story, which I guess makes my life easier.) As long as your kid has the ability to read a longer book and is interested, then this a good graphic novel to pass along. Though the novel revolves around four boys, I still think girls can appreciate it as well. The story is bittersweet and one sees the ending coming, but it is handled in a touching and sincere way.

Full Disclosure: The book was sent to me by the author. I thank him for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

The book will be released tomorrow, November 14, and is a Goodreads giveaway until the 16th.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Internal News: 11-11-12

It's been awhile since we've done one of these, hasn't it? For one thing, I was in Portland for most of a week at the end of October... AKA... That Time I Met Noel Gallagher. (Yes, you'll be hearing more about that soon.) So let us catch up on what I've written when I wasn't posting here.

At P-Mag:

Book Review: Lips Like Sugar: Women's Erotic Fantasies edited by Violet Blue

Notes From Elsewhere: Word Riot Edition:
  • 11-3-12: Interviews with Jonathan Lethem and Cheryl Strayed, how to save waterlogged books, how to dye paper, and more.
  • 11-11-12:  An interview with Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket, a book called Die You Doughnut Bastards, Ms. Polly Jean Harvey, etc. etc.

That's all for now. Time for me to get back to my glacial NaNo pace.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Collective by Don Lee

The Collective
by Don Lee

With a story about artists, writers and generally intelligent people working together to advance their cultural environment, I think I wanted to like The Collective more than I did. Instead, I found myself wanting to hear more from one character and his full-on adult years, rather than the college kid posturing.

Eric Cho attends Macalester College as a creative writing student, and he soon befriends the brash and contrary Joshua Yoon, a fellow writer who is quick to dismiss others and feels a strong responsibility to write about contemporary Asian culture. They live in the same dorm together and soon start spending time with Jessica Tsai, a visual artist who isn't so interested in reciprocating Eric's massive feelings for her. They have many conversations about truth and authenticity, and as they move past school, they find they still want to work together. Through Joshua, they form the 3AC — The Asian American Artists Collective — and are soon hosting meetings at Joshua's Cambridge, Massachusetts house, which he inherited from his white adoptive parents. Joshua has many conflicting feelings about being adopted and therefore how "authentically" Korean he is, but most of the time, he makes others act on the defensive.

However, the very beginning of the book flashes forward to the future, to when Joshua was thirty-eight.

He was running on a stretch of Waterborne where drivers are slingshot out of a curve and accelerate. He heard a car coming, and, rather than keep to the edge of the road, he drifted a few feet onto it.

Did he really mean to do it, to be hit by someone and killed? Could he have been so callous, willing to burden an anonymous driver, through no fault of his own, with a lifetime of trauma?

To this day, I am not sure. I go over and over it, and I still don't know. Maybe Joshua, my old friend, wanted to feel the whoosh and rev of the car as it went by, the inches between death and continuance, how arbitrary the sway can be between the two. Maybe he had yawed drunkenly into the car's path without volition or meditation. Yet the impulse had probably come across Joshua before, more than once, running on that road, to step in front of a speeding car, ending everything right then and there. Whatever the case, there was a witness, a driver approaching from the other direction, who claimed she saw Joshua veer abruptly and unmistakably into the path of the car.

The complexities of Joshua's character are very interesting to me, but The Collective is narrated by Eric instead. I would have even enjoyed narration by Jessica instead, the artist who eventually suffers from carpal tunnel and issues of identity in addition to race, but instead, we get Eric — pining away, wondering away, waiting for someone else to boost him up and give him permission to succeed. In college, he wants a girlfriend because he feels left out. He wants to be a writer, but has trouble actually writing much of anything. He endlessly seeks Joshua and Jessica's validation, though to be fair, Joshua is the sort of commanding personality that might send even more confident people looking for his approval, if for no other reason than to avoid being hassled by him.

The story and the 3AC's mission is a compelling one, but for me, Eric was too passive of a character for me to much care about. He seems to know a lot about everyone else, yet is still perplexed by their behavior. His first girlfriend post-college doesn't drink, and so now all of the sudden he doesn't drink, out of "support." He latches onto her hard, and doesn't quite understand why she feels smothered by it. He also seems to be attracted to people, friendship-wise or romantically, who are notoriously difficult. People walk all over him.

In college, Joshua and I had each made a vow to publish our first books before we hit thirty. We were twenty-eight now. It was still a distinct possibility for him, tapping away up there in the attic. For me, the chances were dubious. I wasn't writing at the moment, just occasionally tinkering with revisions of old stories. The fact was, I hadn't written anything new since grad school. I blamed adjunct teaching and Palaver for waylaying me, but they were poor excuses. There were no excuses, Joshua always said. If you want to write, you write. You find the time. You make the time.

I spent most of my time with Jessica.

(On a side note, let's just have a hearty laugh at two friends both managing to publish their first books before thirty. Oh, we all want to be the young geniuses that make some sort of Hot Writers Under 35 List, but in the back of our heads, we must know to prepare for the long haul.)

I suppose the argument could be made that The Collective is a story about how we can never completely know another person, and that even our closest friends are capable of surprising us. I just wanted to hear about it from someone else. If we could see the inner workings of Joshua, rather than speculate, and juxtapose those thoughts with his outward behavior, I might have enjoyed the novel more.

The thing is, the characters' college-era insecurity follows them into adulthood. They're jealous of others' successes, try to puff themselves up, even if they've made no advancements, and no advancement is always the fault of others. In that way, Joshua is right — The only way you're going to get anything done is by doing it. Otherwise, shut the fuck up.

Joshua's problem though, among many, is that despite his work ethic, he doesn't shut up. And yet, it's hard to believe anything that he says. Moments of honesty and sincerity creep through, and that's especially when I wanted to know what was going on inside his head, why he acted the way he did, rather than hear Eric lament again. So much lamenting. You are twenty-eight years old. Be an adult already.

I understand that creative people are often not the most stable — myself being one of them — and while I sympathized with these characters' causes, I just couldn't quite connect with them. I'm certainly not sorry I read The Collective, but especially now going back through it, I wish the story could have been framed in a more effective way. Like Eric, it has potential, but I wanted better.

Full Disclosure: W.W. Norton sent this book to me as a review copy. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Out of True: Poems by Amy Durant

Out of True: Poems
by Amy Durant

Out of True is a world knocked off-kilter by love, both in its giving and its absence.

"You don't want me to write about you," Amy Durant says in "Palimpsest," when it seems that what the speaker would like to say is, "I can't stop writing about you, and to be honest, it's kind of doing my head in." I don't want to make the assumption that Durant's poems come from a personal place, but whoever is speaking within them had to work very hard at moving past a life-altering, unbalanced relationship. Still, as is the case with most big loves, one never completely lets go.

It's your brain that does it. Turns another
person, a total stranger, into your other half,
into what you've been missing. Your brain
fills in the gaps. Your brain does this.
Your heart just keeps pumping. Dumbly pumping
away, oblivious.

You imprint upon someone like an orphaned
baby duck. Your brain tells you to do it,
so you do. It could be anyone. Your brain
pulls you down the path. You follow. You
don't know any better.
You're along for the ride.

  • from "The Science of This"

There are so many lines in Durant's poems that feel so true and can be tied to my own memories. She has great insight into love and heartbreak, and also the bewilderment of our own making. I know how easy it is to tell myself that I will no longer care in the same way I once did, or that I won't let it bother me that I care far more about someone/thing than others, but I'm only semi-successful. "I loved you at temperatures beyond all that is rational," she writes. I know that love.

And then, without our permission, as though we could ever give permission, time passes:

You are married.
I thought since I still
dream of you at night
you were also
dreaming of me.

  • from "REM Sleep. March – September"

The early loves are perhaps some of the most difficult. It's before we know fully who we are and what we want and how we should treat each other. It's too easy to get it wrong, even when our self-awareness advances.

Other poems talk about love gone right, the love that happens after a disaster, the steadier kind. She writes of forgoing the idea of a perfect house, of learning to be around children, and of being happy as long as two people support each other. It's nice to read, that the poems aren't so singularly focused that they dwell. One big love does not mean that the big loves are singular in occurrence.

Durant has many good bits, but she sometimes tries too hard to neatly end poems. More than one, I wanted to trim the last line or so, as they lessened the impact of the whole poem. Every once in awhile, she falls into what I like to call "Poetry Slam-Style Metaphor Overkill," where one moment "you" are fire, then rain, then "I" am in a Venn diagram, then a labrynth — all in rapid succession. For me, it's an unfocused way of saying, "Look! Watch me write!" It's an easy temptation.

Still, Out of True is a very enjoyable collection of poetry in a pocket-sized edition, and one that makes me eager to read Amy Durant's other and future work. You should too.

Full Disclosure: This book was sent to me as a review copy from the author. I thank her for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.