To me, the hardest book reviews to write are the ones where the book is just “meh,” neither one that is super praiseworthy or one that deserves utter scorn. But “meh” is where I am when it comes to Ruth Joffre’s collection of short stories in her book Night Beast.
In Night Beast, Joffre’s characters are caught up in various predicaments including coming in terms with one’s sexual identity, romantic heartbreak, the struggles of parenthood, challenges in the workplace, gut wrenching grief, and all kinds of abuse. And they are depicted using various genres such as sci-fi, fantasy, romance and true to life-some that work, some that don’t.
Some of Joffre’s stories show great promise but are written in a choppy, too short manner. They lack enticing plots, compelling character development and satisfying conclusions (think of bad sex with no orgasm). It’s as if Joffre got bored and decided to stop writing. I wish she would have just left these stories out of her book (or a good editor would have cut them out).
But there are a few stories I found entertaining and quite thought-provoking, showing Joffre’s strength as writer of fiction.
In the opening chapter Nitrate Nocturnes, everyone is outfitted with a timer that counts the exact amount of time in years, days, seconds and so on until they meet their true soul mate. But it is also a future where everything is timed out including death. This story was quite chilling in our day of digital media and technological “advances.” How long before something like this actually happens? I shudder to think!
In Go West and Grow up, Joffre tells a tale of a mother and daughter just trying to survive as they escape an abusive and alcoholic husband and father with very little resources and support. This story really got under my skin, and I hope if Joffre writes another collection of short stories she provides a sequel to Go West and Grow Up or perhaps this could inspire her to write a novel based on this story.
Another punch to the heart is the story I’m Not Asking, which tells the tale of two women coping with the loss of their unborn child and how it affects them as women, lovers and would-be mothers. I’m Not Asking would also make for a good novel.
Joffre is not a bad writer at all. I think she shows great promise and potential. She just needs to keep her fingers to the keyboard to fully shape the stories that are less than satisfying and a kindly editor who can help her round out her writing a bit more. Night Beast may be “meh,” but Joffre has the capability to become truly magnificent.
Not too long ago, the lovely people from Eventbrite burned up some cyberspace and contacted me on writing about my ideal book panel discussion featuring my favorite authors and/or characters. I Googled Eventbrite to see if it was legit or not. Looking pretty darn legit, I quickly contacted them and said I’d love to do it, just give me some time to figure out what authors and/or characters I’d like to have on my panel.
Saying yes to this project was the easy part…coming up with authors and characters was quite another. There are so many authors and characters I adore and nearly worship. I would need a round table as large as Lambeau Field to house them all. What authors and characters do I pick? There are times when just picking out what earrings to wear on a particular day is a monumental task.
First I decided to pick authors only. And then I decided the authors would all be women. This is no slap at the male authors I adore or men in general. It’s just four authors popped into my lady brain and they just happened to be women.
What else does a panel discussion need? Well, moderators, of course! We can’t let this discussion run amok, right? Now who would I choose to moderate (well, besides me, of course). I immediately thought of my favorite journalist, Bill Moyers, a lovely gentleman whose curious, thoughtful and empathetic interviewing style would be perfect for this panel and our sure to be scintillating discussion.
Afterward the panel discussion I’d host a post-discussion casual meet and greet for the authors and the audience. I’ll even bring snacks.
Following are the principle players in the Book Self’s First Women of Words: A Celebration (and Potluck).
Moderators: Bill Moyers-see pic (and me, of course)
Audience: Men and women who love to read (and maybe even write). I’d pretty much invite fellow bookworms who have a mad love of the written word.
Special VIPs: My mom who got me to read in the first place and introduced me to the wonders of libraries and book stores. My friends, both in my off-line universe, and those I adore via the Internet. They include long-time friends Nora and Elaine Takagi, Jen Locke, Rosie Blythe, Cobalt Stargazer and Tari. I chose these ladies because they are talented writers who have written guest reviews at both my blogs, have blogs themselves and are just incredibly talented writers as a whole.
As for the potluck I’m providing post-discussion and during the meet and greet? Well, I’d offer various types of cookies and brownies, including my treasured sugar mint cookies and dark chocolate brownies with a sea salt caramel glaze, chocolate chip cake, zesty pretzels, various chips and dips including my goat cheese dip, veggie with dill dip, guacamole, hummus and salsa, fruit and veggie platters, a tasty cheese plate with homemade crackers, and various liquid refreshments including my mom’s Brandy Smash.
As I mentioned, I selected four distinct ladies of letters-Judy Blume, Dorothy Parker, Roxane Gay and Caitlin Moran. The following are reasons why I want them on my panel:
How could I not have my discussion and not feature Judy Blume? When I was a mere lass feeling like a 4th grade nothing, battered by bullying, confused by puberty, and vowing to never name my future male offspring Ralph, Judy was the Man…I mean Woman!!! Whereas other writers wrote about tweens and teens in a way that were both saccharine and unrealistic, Judy wrote about the adolescent experience in realistic ways, which never sugarcoated the issues we faced whether it was getting our periods, sex and masturbation, schoolyard bullying, family strife, religion and social issues. She knew these distinct moments in our lives were of monumental importance and treated the topics and her readers with so much respect.
No panel discussion of mine would be complete with the ghost of Dorothy Parker, whose poetry continues to inspire me. However, I must admit I was initially not a fan of Parker’s. I first heard of Parker when, as an insecure, bespectacled pre-teen, I read her line saying, “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.” Stomping in my Nike sneakers, I thought to myself, “What a mean lady!” But it wasn’t long before I realized the Divine Dorothy was just being snarky and probably pitying those men who didn’t quite get the erotic allure of a girl in glasses. I’m now a huge fan of Parker’s and I consider her to be the patron saint of all witty women too smart for their damn good. How could I not invite her to Women of Words.? You know she’d have plenty to say, and she’d love the Brandy Smash!
Then there are two of my favorite writers I have recently grown to appreciate who are not only fabulous writers, but who are also very proud to claim the word feminist. These women are Roxane Gay and Caitlin Moran. Both of these women write about the female experience, with clarity, wisdom and richness fully capturing the beauty and ugliness of what it means to be a female in the 21st century. Both Bay and Caitlin have written non-fiction and fictional books that are near and dear to my heart. Both Gay’s collection of short stories in Difficult Women and Moran’s novel How to Build a Girl received rave reviews by the Book Self. And their individual collection of essays, Bad Feminist and Moranifesto are two feminist-minded must-reads.
This discussion could also be a way for Gay to promote her memoir Hunger, which chronicles her experience as a survivor of a gang rape and how it led her to using food as an escape, comfort and shield. Interestingly enough, in Moranifesto Moran tells men two things they need to know about women one is we fear them, that they will hurt us physically, sexually, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. This topic alone could make for a very intriguing and mind-blowing discussion.
However, I want this to be so much more! So even though I want this to be a free floating discussion of writing, I also have some questions Moyers and I could throw out to the panel. They are as follows:
What did they read when they were little girls and why?
When did they start to write and why? What did they write? Who are their favorite authors and books from their girlhood to today? Who are these authors and books and authors their favorites?
When did they realize writing was their vocation?
What inspires them to write?
Describe their version of writer’s block. How do they cope with writer’s block?
Describe the good, bad and the ugly of being writers, especially women writers.
Describe what it is like to write non-fiction, fiction, poetry, journalistic features, and so on, both the similarities and the differences.
What is the one book they wish they wrote?
Discuss their future plans.
Advice for writers.
After the panel discussion we’d have a Q & A session where the audience gets to ask the panel their own questions.
Later, we’d sum up the occasion with a casual meet and greet/potluck. However, we’d have to tell Dorothy Parker she has to smoke outside and keep her from bogarting the Brandy Smash.
I must admit I had fun writing this and I’m so happy Eventbrite asked me to be a part of this. I also realized there is so much I want to discuss with these ladies that it might take up more than one session. We could make this a week-end event!
Eventbrite offers great book-related events all over. If you ‘d like to find a book event near you check out this registration online tool.
I became a fan of Roxane Gay when I first saw her speak at Boswell Book Company about her book, the part memoir/part assortment of essays, Bad Feminist. Bad Feminist blew me away so when I found her latest release, a collection of short stories called Difficult Women, I just knew I had to read it. I hoped Gay’s singular voice in writing non-fiction would translate into writing fiction.
I am glad to say I am not disappointed. Gay is a writer who fully recognizes the complex lives of women’s truth, from the most of grand experiences to the tiny minutiae that make of their daily lives (and ours). Some live in impressive privilege and others dreary lives of poverty.
Difficult Women is made of 21 stories, dissimilar yet fully connected. The opening chapter “I Will Follow” is about two sisters who were abducted as children and experienced deplorable acts. The sisters’ past makes them eerily, yet touching connected well into adulthood as they follow each other all over the country. Even though these sisters (by society’s standards) should have staked out their own separate lives, I understood how this might be nearly impossible for them.
The title story “Difficult Women” Gay defines “loose,” “frigid,” “crazy” women along with mothers and dead girls through vividly written definitions and descriptions:
Just what does a loose woman see when she sees herself in a mirror? “Nothing. She doesn’t look. She doesn’t need to. She knows exactly who she is.”
Where does a frigid women go at night? “There are places for people with secrets and she has secrets, so many of them that sometimes they threaten to choke her. She goes to the places for people with secrets for people with secrets and there she waits.”
What happens when crazy women snap? “She is sitting at her desk, working late, when her boss hulks his way into her office, sitting too close, on the edge of her desk, taking up space in the way men do. He stares down her blouse and it’s the presumption in the way he doesn’t hide his interest that makes her hold the sharp letter opener in the cool of her hand.”
As for mothers? Well, mothers can only be described in their roles as mothers on from what she sees in her child’s face to how she loves.
Dead girls, you are now wondering? What about them? Well, they are dead. How do you define them? Are they more interesting? Do you find them beautiful?
Another story I adored is Gay’s fable-like “Requiem for a Glass Heart.” In this story the wife is made entirely of glass, her husband is fully-human. The glass wife is smooth, hairless, and transparent. Day after day she takes care of child also made of glass. The husband has matted chest hair and calloused hands who earns his money as a stone thrower. He also has a mistress on the side, one made fully of flesh and blood. Does the glass wife know about the mistress? She just might. Perhaps being made of glass doesn’t quite this woman as transparent as she may initially seem….
Other stories are complete stand-outs—“North Country,” “Bad Priest,” and “Best Features” quickly come to mind. But to be honest, every single story in Difficult Women is so remarkable that choosing a favorite is quite, well, difficult.
As I came to Difficult Women’s close, I found myself not only thinking of Gay’s voice as a visionary writer, but how these stories played out like mini-movies in my mind’s eye. Difficult Women would make for a great TV series, perhaps all the stories adapted by female screenwriters and directed by female directors. Or maybe in an interesting twist, some stories adapted by male screen writers and directed by male directors.
But alas, Difficult Women is for now, is a book, one I implore difficult women everywhere (and the beguiled men who love them) to read.
In the mood to read a collection of short stories rather than read a full-length novel, book of essays or work of non-fiction, I chanced upon Kathleen Collins’ small volume of stories Whatever Happened to Interracial Love at my local library. The book I held my hand was small and I figured it wouldn’t take much time to read it and therefore, I could quickly churn out another review in a short amount of time.
And yes, it didn’t take me long to read Collins work, only a few days given my personal and professional schedule. However, it did take me time to digest each and every story, which is probably why it took me some time to write this review. I found each of the stories invading my bloodstream and taking up space in my brain, heart and soul. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love made me look at some very thorny topics regarding race, gender, class, education, sex, money, and artistic expression. Sometimes reading is there just as entertainment, nothing wrong at that. But often reading is about learning and questioning the very society and culture we live in.
While reading Whatever Happened to Interracial Love I asked myself, “Just who is this Kathleen Collins? How come I never heard of her until I picked up her book?”
Kathleen Collins was born in 1942. She was educated at Skidmore and worked as a film maker and artist. Her film “Losing Ground” came out in 1982 focusing on the life of a black female professor navigating the shifty waters of academia and her marriage to a volatile, passionate artist who has his own demons to contend with. This forces the female protagonist to question her own choices and inspires her go on a journey to find her own version of ecstasy. This sounds like my kind of film and I can probably find it via the Internet for a nominal price.
However, it is Whatever Happened to Interracial Love that I must concentrate on, a book that was discovered recently and published last year, nearly 30 years Collins died of cancer.
It is 1963 in the title story and about two roommates living in New York City, one black, one white. The white roommate is a Sarah Lawrence graduate and works as a community organizer in Harlem. Her lover is a black poet. The other roommate is black and madly in love with a white Freedom Rider. She also spent time in jail while protesting down south.
Both roommates have to deal with the backlash of not quite fitting into the firm ideals of how they should conduct themselves as women and how their behavior might be unbecoming towards their separate race, and much of this comes from family members. They also find themselves questioning their choices both personally and politically.
Interracial love is also beautifully conveyed in “The Happy Family.” In this story a white man becomes acquainted with a loving black family while attending a civil rights rally while attending a church. He can’t help but be drawn to this particular family. His own family was severely dysfunctional and his new friends are kind, warm and inviting, everything his family is not. Plus, he is drawn to their intellectual ways and their commitment to social justice. He ends up falling in love one of the daughters and romance blooms between the young lovers. You can only hope that this romance will deepen and grow during a time of racial injustice and intricate family dynamics.
Getting below the surface and finding out the uncomfortable truth is the narrative of “The Uncle.” In this story a young girl is absolutely besotted with her handsome uncle and beautiful aunt. They seem to have the perfect marriage, one this young girl hopes to have herself. But as she gets to know them more and more, she soon learns of something isn’t quite right about the marriage, which makes them teeter on the pedestal she placed them upon.
So many stories in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love are linked by the themes of love, learning, questioning one’s choices and the choices of others during the rich tapestry of the civil rights movement.
Collins stories are more character-driven than plot-driven, and each character is written so full of richness and depth that I felt I knew these characters. At times their experiences resonated with me and sometimes they were very foreign, but no matter what, they were always compelling. Often I wondered about them after I finished a chapter. What did the future hold for these people?
Whatever Happened to Interracial love shows rather than tells. Collins delivers these short stories in visual elements that are quite striking, which must be due to her experience as a film maker.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love is another book that stayed with long after I finished it. And it saddens me Collins died long before her book was published and before she could bless us with more of her work both on celluloid and on the written page.
Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born James Mercer Langston Hughes in Joplin, Missouri. He was a prolific writer, poet, playwright, author and activist. As a young man, Langston led a complex and adventurous life both in the United State and abroad, which undoubtedly influenced his writing style and his outpouring of work. He was a key player in the Harlem Renaissance, a collective of African-American writers, artists, performers, and activists, which included Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, Alan Locke, Claude Toomer, Josephine Baker, and Louis Armstrong.
Intrigued by both the Harlem Renaissance and its key players, I found myself drawn to Hughes collection of short stories The Way of White Folks. And though it was published in 1934, I find it immensely timely in 2017.
Langston’s stories fully express the lives of black people, especially when dealing with white people, during the 1920s and ‘30s, even those so-called good liberal white people who only seemed to be on the side of “colored people.” These stories are at turns sad and humorous, and not one of them rings a false note.
The Way of White Folks consists of 14 powerful short stories. It opens with “Cora Unashamed.” Cora of the title is Cora Jenkins who lives in small town called Melton. She is considered a “Negress,” that is a polite, unassuming, and quiet colored lady. She works for the Studevants, who sadly to say, don’t treat her in a favorable manner. And Cora accepts this because due to her race and her sex, she doesn’t have much power.
Cora does everything for the Studevants. She cleans cooks, runs errands and takes care of the children. But to the Studevants, Cora is just a servant, nothing more. She should be grateful for the job.
But she is so much more than a servant. She is quietly strong. She once had a passionate love affair. And as the “Cora Unashamed” unfolds proves to be far more bold and passionate than she lets on unleashing a very surprising and interesting dénouement.
In “Home,” the protagonist, Roy Williams goes back to his home in the United States after many years of making a living as a jazz musician, traveling all over Europe. Roy contemplates how his experiences in both cultures as a black man are similar and different.
The Colony, a collective of black artists and intellectuals, is splendidly examined in the chapter called, “Rejuvenation of Joy.” These talented people convey both the good and bad of The Colony and what they face when not in their protective and inspiring community of shared experiences.
The final chapter “Father and Son” tells the tale of Colonel Thomas Norwood’s relationship with his black mistress Coralee Lewis and their biracial children. Colonel Norward takes advantage but doesn’t offer advantage to these children. And his attitude is best summed up in the dejected and heartbreaking words of his son, Bert.
“Oh, but I’m not a nigger, Colonel Norwood. I’m your son.”
Although I finished this book several days ago, I still feel them greatly. I have very little in common with Langston Hughes. I am a privileged white woman born and raised after the age of Jim Crow. Yet, I’d like to think it’s my deep well of empathy that made me love this book, but I also grew up in a small town where people still harbor the racist ideas of the white folks in this collection. When it comes to works of culture and art, we don’t only see them as they are; we also see them as we are.
But for the most part, the reason why The Way of White Folks cuts so deep is due to the book itself, and Langston’s gifted, soulful way with the English language. It is a book that will take a figurative spot within my soul, and one I can truly say is placed on my book self.
Has it really been thirty years since Tama Janowitz’s collection of short stories Slaves of New York was released? I read it a several years after its initial release, and to me, a young girl who grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, Slaves of New York and Janowitz just defined the Big Apple to me, the way her WASPy peers Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney and their literary offerings never did. But then again, as a dorky, most definitely non-WASPy kind of girl, this shouldn’t surprise me.
Imagine a Pre-Guiliani New York of the 1980s. This was before Times Square was completely cleaned-up and Disney-fied, Donald Trump was just a loud and tacky business man, not the GOP candidate for president (yes, a much kinder, simpler time), “greed is good” was the mantra of every yuppie sporting slicked back hair and suspenders, the World Trade Center defined the Manhattan skyline and “Sex and The City” and “Girls” weren’t notions in the heads of Sarah Jessica Parker and Lena Dunham.
Slaves of New York is a collection of intermingled stories of struggling and hustling painters, designers, performance artists, writers, and other creative types. One creative type we meet is Eleanor who is in her late twenties and trying to make it as a jewelry designer. She lives with her boyfriend, Stash, who is a graffiti artist, temperamental and only fleetingly devoted to Eleanor, sometimes going for days without speaking to her for some minor infraction on her part.
As a jewelry designer, Eleanor feels she is a failure and is frustrated by her lack of artistic and professional success. Furthermore, she desires more of a commitment from Stash, marriage, but that is isn’t about to happen any time soon.
And even though Eleanor knows she should fully break free from Stash, find someone better and concentrate more on her jewelry designs she doesn’t. Her relationship with Stash isn’t just about love; it’s also about having a place to live. Eleanor can’t afford to pay rent all on her own; yes, the rent is too damn high!
Another slave of New York is Marley Mantello, the protagonist of five of Janowitz’s tales. Marley fashions himself of a genius painter, on the verge of being the “next big thing.” What he lacks in actual talent and skill, he makes up in sheer bravado and being a legend in his own mind. He pays no mind to those who merely orbit his universe. Yes, Marley is unbelievably obnoxious and best to be ignored if one runs into him. But there are times when tragedy befalls him, and he shows a true humanity that makes you feel a smidge of compassion, like when his sister commits suicide.
Other stories between the covers of Slaves of New York include a man who claims to be rich and takes unsuspecting women “jewelry shopping “at Tiffany’s. Why he does this, he can’t quite explain. Maybe it’s just easier to pose as an eccentric man of considerable means, rather actually be the poor guy he actually is.
Other tales told include one of man, Victor, who suffers from a cocktail of ailments, neuroses and acid reflux being just a couple of them. Cora gets involved with Ray, not for love, but through him she can a cop a decent meal now and then and some free furniture for her new apartment. She should feel guilty, especially considering she’s graduate student of women’ studies; but hey, she’s just trying to survive. And in another tale, a spoiled, rich girl, after getting expelled from college and enduring a brief marriage, dabbles in prostitution and heroin (haven’t we all?).
But for me, Slaves of New York, is Eleanor’s story. Like me, Eleanor is from a small town, both befuddled and in wonderment the city and all it has to offer. She’s desperate to fit into the artistic, creative, madcap world that surrounds her, but finds herself coming up short. She’s such a naïve lass that she doesn’t realize a fashion designer she has coffee with is gay, which reminded me how shocked I was the first time I saw two guys making out at a party even though I had no problem with gay people. And I can only imagine the look on my face when I saw some ladies snorting coke in at a dance club bathroom; I’d seen Scarface on cable, for goodness sake! And aside to my mother, I have never done coke, okay?
We now live in very different time that existed in 1986. Business moguls are now rock stars, and rock stars aspire to be moguls. Google is a verb, people don’t want to be artists, but instead they want to be brands, and we let our social media define us. Yet, Eleanor’s tale is eternal. We want to be independent, desire success, express ourselves in a creative matter, and still want the stability and security we think only a marriage will offer. Sure, at times Slaves of New York is sentimental, dated read, but I still found it entertaining and can still relate to Janowitz’s debut.
Writer Steve Almond has a way of writing about people who may be seen as life’s losers, are living on society’s fringe, or are totally deluded about their greatness. But, he does it in a way that makes you feel empathy for these people, including the sad sack protagonists found in the pages of his latest book, a collection of short stories called God Bless America.
“God Bless America” is the first story in Almond’s collection. Working as a drug store stock boy, a young man finds himself unexpectedly taking an acting class when he signed up for something different (this happened when he got lost at local adult education center). He somehow convinces himself that he is a Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt in the making even though his acting talent can be called marginal at best. He doesn’t reach leading man status but does become a tour guide in Boston (hey, in a way he is “performing” and has an “audience”), which gets him involved in some criminal activity.
“In Not Until You Say Yes”, a widowed woman, still supporting her adult children (and not happy about it), works a thankless security job at the Logan airport in Boston. Her day gets much more challenging (it’s not like she doesn’t have enough on her plate) when she is assigned to look after a young boy who keeps getting bumped off overbooked flights to make a little extra money. Will she grow fond of this little rascal or will he work her last nerve?
In “Shotgun Wedding” a woman works as a copywriter for a “hip, cool boutique ad agency” but her so-called creative job is empty and soulless. To make matters worse, her period is late and she’s feeling the possible effects of morning sickness. Could she be pregnant? Too scared to find out, she resists taking the “rabbit test” at her doctor’s office or through a home test. Why? She wonders how her possible delicate condition may affect her fiancé, who is currently in Milwaukee and more focused on his career than being a father. If she’s pregnant will her fiancé step up to the plate and be a father or will she have to go it alone?
“First Date Back” is one story in God Bless America that truly got to me. In this story, a soldier comes back to the United States and develops a wee bit of ardor for a flight attendant on the flight home. This young woman realizes the soldier isn’t exactly prepared for life back in the United States. She takes pity on him and agrees to go out on a date with the young man even though she isn’t exactly into him. The young veteran, confused and lonely, takes her one act of compassion for true love, and the results are heartbreaking. You might want to have tissues nearby when you read the “First Date Back.”
God Bless America concludes with “A Dream of Sleep”. Wolf is a cemetery caretaker, confused by the world outside. He keeps himself confined in the cemetery, making sure it and its deceased citizens are well taken care of, and rarely ventures outside its confines. He lives and works most of his days in solitude. Living in mostly solitude, Wolf’s life is upended by a young girl who sneaks into the old cemetery to have sex with her boyfriend. She also appears to be pregnant with said boyfriend’s child. Will Wolf kick this girl out or will he take her under his protective wing and connect with the world outside?
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Almond’s stories, even though they sometimes made me uncomfortable and yes, cry. Almond is a writer’s writer, writing with empathy, clarity and true understanding of the interesting characters that make up our odd society here in the United States. Almond inspires you to care about these characters, but is never preachy about it.
I for one, consider it to be a blessing I discovered God Bless America and the talents of Steve Almond. And I’m thrilled to find out he has written other books, which I am sure I will add to my reading list.