27 June 2017

Book Reviews: Bausch, Roy, Russo, Woods

Books are reviewed on a 1-5 star scale; reviews are my own and are written for [City] Book Review. Reviews may be published online for Manhattan Book Review, Seattle Book Review, and/or San Francisco Book Review.

Living in the Weather of the World: Stories, Richard Bausch ★★★

It could always be worse
Prolific writer Richard Bausch’s latest collection of short stories, Living in the Weather of the World, offers an array of deeply flawed characters trying to move through life on some of their worst days. In the opening story, “Walking Distance,” a police officer’s marriage breaks down over breakfast and his day gets worse from there, while the sixth story in the collection, “The Knoll,” stars an unmoored young man seeking to make a name for himself in a disturbing way. These two characters are good indicators of the kinds of protagonists the collection offers: largely male, dissatisfied with their lives, and unrelenting in their lack of joy.

The longest story in the collection, “The Lineaments of Gratified Desire,” is the most compelling, perhaps because the narrative does not seem as compressed as the other works. Its protagonist, an artist named David, has no sense of who he is or what he wants which leads him to a string of bad decisions. But, the story’s ending, like several in the collection, feels rushed and incomplete, and the women are largely variations on narcissistic, neurotic harpies or clueless victims of broken men.

However, for those interested in reading about people whose lives are unraveling, or those who want some perspective that perhaps their own lives aren’t as bad as they seem, this collection has much to offer.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy ★★★★★

Pain and Peril, Promise and Paradise
While the world in which The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is set may be foreign to some readers, the characters Arundhati Roy has created are achingly familiar. First Anjum, born Aftab, who longs to be something other, something brighter and more beautiful than the world initially allows. Then Tilo, a woman whose inner strength is born of suffering and who fears her greatest happiness will always come at a price. And then, there are the dead. As relevant as their living counterparts, the dead in Roy’s novel exist to remind us we are alive and that this one life, fraught with peril, war, and pain, is as equally full of joy and promise and, yes, even paradise, if we allow ourselves to see it.

Set in India, in all its various incarnations, over a span of years, the novel weaves together the stories of many characters over time in a way that is not entirely clear until the latter chapters. This weaving, subtle as the flapping wings of the birds that riddle the novel, is both brilliant and maddening. But, staying with the story when ends are loose and the pattern yet to emerge is rewarding because the heart of the novel is simple: we need each other. Human beings need each other to traverse a world at war so we may find the place we truly belong. This need is true for readers of all faiths, all castes, all genders, and that truth is the genius of Arundhati Roy’s long awaited, and near perfect, second novel.

Trajectory: Stories, Richard Russo ★★★★★

Grounds for hope
In just four stories, Pulitzer Prize winning writer Richard Russo’s latest collection, Trajectory, attends to several fundamental questions of human existence. Among them, who we are when no one else is looking, when we know it is time to let go, and what we are willing to fight for.

The protagonists learn— in some way—who they are at the core: someone who forgives, someone who betrays, perhaps both. This common thread of learning connects the pieces even to human experience because all of us have at some time, been students. In the opening story, “Horseman,” an academic setting develops this theme of revelation as a college professor confronts a cheating student and realizes her own authenticity may be in question.
The other three stories all feature older male protagonists questioning themselves and the worlds in which they live with humility, fear, vitality, and humor. People who believe life stops after a certain age need only read Russo’s latest collection to see richness and depth are companions to a long life.

A trajectory is a path an object, or in this case, a person takes through space and time; Russo’s Trajectory suggests our paths are never as straight or as simple as we may wish. But, just as one character muses “this brutal world simply will not spare you,” another affirms there “just might be grounds for hope.” These two ideas anchor Russo’s most recent collection, and their familiar, and at times heartbreaking, paradox is exactly why the book is worth reading.

Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country, Chavisa Woods ★★★

The impossible is not far from possible
Ranging from the mundane to the bizarre, the eight stories in Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country offer glimpses into the lives of people living within and without, a part of and separate from the things they hold dear. Several protagonists return to the places they call home, small towns and churches and cemeteries that signify some secret wish or fear, while a few are trying to leave or escape. A few stories take an absurdist turn bordering on Sci-fi, but in all cases the characters themselves question their reality, realizing “if everything is barely possible, then the impossible is not far from possible.”

References to pop culture, prominent philosophers, and critics pepper the stories though, at times, the name-dropping is a bit forced, and some of the situations feel cliché. However, the stories driven by younger protagonists, “Zombie,” “What’s Happening on the News?” and the title story pack the most punch, perhaps because the things that inspire and scare us as children so often define us as adults. Ultimately, the twenty-first century, from the conflict in the Middle East to drug addiction in the heartland, are at the heart of these stories. This is a collection that intentionally tries to reflect the world in which we live now and does so with an emphasis on our shared humanity.

10 August 2013

It ain't about the money, money, money (but it kind of is)

The older I get the more aware I am of my insecurities.  Physical, emotional, and--bugger of all buggers--financial.  In an effort to stop feeling like money woes are some dirty little secret I shouldn't speak about in public, I'm going to try to put into words the way money makes me feel.

When I have it--and I don't mean piles in which I roll naked while listening to Jay-Z sing 100 Bills--but when I have enough financial security to get through the month without nickel and diming til the next paycheck, I feel fantastic.  Like I am the smartest, most cash savvy lady on the planet.  When I don't have it, though--when I am looking up paycheck dates to see when I'll get a little relief--I feel like a clueless little girl who can't get her shit together enough to have more than $20 in her savings account.

Geneen Roth, in her book Lost & Found: One Woman's Story of Losing Her Money and Finding Her Life, writes about the reluctance we have as people--and as women especially--to talk about money.  Like somehow having it, or not having it, comes with so many subtle and scary consequences that we put our heads down and just pretend it's all okay when maybe, in reality, it isn't.  And for me, it isn't.  I know someday everything will work itself out. I know if I work hard, have faith, believe in a better tomorrow, and put as much love in to the world as I can, my life will be meaningful and joyous.  But it won't be easy.  And today, I am wishing it could be a little easier.

My problems stem, mostly, from being naive when I got divorced.  I wound up with credit card debt from trying to hang on to the house we owned until I could put it on the market, so now I'm sitting under a stack of bills.  Every trick recommended by budget books, websites, savings articles, and Pinterest tips has been implemented, and it's still a pretty rocky road.

Do I have enough to get by?  Yes.  I can pay all of my bills and have about $100 a week for food, gas, and entertainment left over.  But that's $400 to cover all the incidentals you don't think about, too, like the dog collar I had to buy today because Zelda's three year old one finally gave out, or the air filters I had to replace because my landlord, for some reason, doesn't do that.

What does all this mean? It means that I live in a pretty heightened state of money related anxiety most of the time.  I fear for any emergency that might come up, be it medical or automotive, personal or familial.  How would I be able to handle it?  The truth is, I don't know.  And, the even more shocking truth is that it would only take $10,000 to change my life.  That's it.  My credit cards and medical bills would be paid off, I'd have money to put in to savings each month, and I wouldn't have to worry about each and every dime.  But there's no ten thousand dollar lotto ticket in my future, so I am pushing on as best I can for now.

Why is this topic worthy of a blogpost? In his book How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom posits that we read to feel less alone.  That has always been true for me; the plights of others writ large across the pages of books have brought me immeasurable comfort in my 37 years.  Today, though, I thought I'd give the other side of it a shot.  I know I am not the only person who struggles with financial fear, and by saying it out loud I hope to make someone feel a little less alone.

28 July 2013

All By Myself (Don't Wanna Be)

Bridget Jones's Diary opens with credits rolling over Bridget lounging around her apartment smoking cigarettes, drinking wine, listening  to the song referenced in the the title of this post. Jones is established, from the opening shots, as a woman who is tired of being alone and we spend the rest of the film (and it's sequel) watching her work out how to alleviate this awful state of loneliness, alone-ness, solitude, what have you.

Jones has a circle of close friends in whom she confides all of her fears and hopes, but it is the man--make that the MAN as capital letters traditionally dictates importance--who will complete her in every way. And she spends the film searching for him among the over-abundant number of emotional fuckwittage cases in London.  She believes finding the right man will make everything okay.  But, just like losing weight or winning the lottery, getting what you want (the MAN) doesn't mean YOU are any different.  You're the same person you've always been in a new set of circumstances.

Blogger Hannah posted about her husband not being her soulmate last week. Her ideas are rooted in the misconception that God plans everything for our lives, including the mate who will enrich, fulfill, and rock us with desire for all our lives.  It's a pretty great take on what the mid 90s to early 2000s Evangelical movement sold Christian kids in America.  As I read it this morning, followed by the new Psychology Today cover story ("What Happy People Do Differently"), it hit me that I have been living with some of the same future-fixes they both reference.

For as long as I can remember, I have felt lonely. I can feel it in a crowd full of people just as intensely--sometimes more--than when I am alone.  I have a sense of being other, separate, removed that I can't shake no matter how many parties I go to, close friends I have, or classrooms full of kids I teach.  It's just a natural state of being for me.  

Like Bridget, and like Hannah's younger self, I have often imagined that finding the MAN would make all of this isolation fade away, that somehow he would fill the corners in the giant room of my heart and suddenly there wouldn't be space to hide in anymore.  I am pretty sure I have found that man, to my utter shock and thankfulness each day, but it turns out he can be in the giant room, laughing and talking and twirling me around in it until I am dizzy with joy and love, and there's still emptiness.

He and I have a wonderful relationship that is stronger and deeper with each passing day.  Through being with him I have realized that what I really want--in all my closest connections--is intimacy.  Not all night kisses, hot breathing and tangled sheets intimacy, though all of that is simply lovely, but the kind of intimacy between two people that exists when you share everything without judgment, where you turn to each other first  to share your greatest accomplishments and deepest heartbreaks.  The kind of intimacy that means no matter how hard something is, knowing you have one another to turn to halves the difficulty. 

I could chronicle all the reasons why trusting people is hard. And I'd bet all my reasons are the same as yours. Betrayals, petty nothingness, our own judgment turning out to be terrible when we least expected it.  It's all universal and it's all so terribly personal. 

When Hannah married, she realized the beauty of choosing each day to love the man who became her husband, the joy of working towards a life with him, and the reality that small choices each day kept them together, connected to God and each other.  When Bridget finally gets out of her own way and kisses Mark Darcy in the snow outside the bookshop, she finds herself blissfully happy and connected.  And so, I suppose, that's what I am ultimately trying to find.  A way to feel connected to the world at large so that I don't feel invisible when the loneliness birds fly into my heart.  

So, today, I am going to try to live in what feels connected now.  Not what may happen in the future to make things better, not how the MAN can fix everything for me (because that's too much pressure on him and, honestly, not what I want).  Today, I am going to try to trust myself a little more and to shine a brighter light in that room so that, even if the dark corners don't quite disappear, I can begin to be less afraid of them.

19 July 2013

How I was in the beginning

I remember growing up in two ways, so separate you'd think they were memories of two different children.  On the one hand, I remember playing on my elementary school playground.  Monkey bars, swing set, kickball. I wasn't an athletic or even a coordinated child, but recess came and, like all good first through sixth graders, I played.  I had alliances and enemies, people I wanted to play with and those I didn't.  Those memories are normal, tinted a little green from age and wear, but no different from anyone else's memories of grade school.

The second set is boy-girl specific as in girls vs. boys.  Specifically this girl vs. the boys.  Pictures of me from age 0-11 are adorable.  I am blonde, wide-eyed, average height and weight.  I have straight white teeth (no braces ever and still--to this day--I have never had a cavity).  Somewhere around age twelve I got my period, developed breasts, and was so different from other girls that I became my own entity against the boys. This lasted a long time. 

There were girls who weighed more than I did, but no one was as insecure about it as I was.  The women in my family, who I love dearly, dieted constantly, so I knew any extra weight was bad, but here I was, developing dimpled ass cheeks and curved hips and a chest that would be 36C by the time I was 15.  I was curvy and insecure--insecurvy--and had no idea what to do with a body like mine.  But, apparently, the boys knew what to do with it.

In ninth grade, at a new school (we moved in the middle of my eighth grade year), a friend took me to a junior high basketball game to flirt with a boy she liked.  At that game, an eighth grade boy told me I looked like I could perform a certain sex act very well because of the shape of my mouth.  I was fourteen.  

At that point, I'd been kissed by three boys.  One while playing spin the bottle--my first kiss ever--and two 'boyfriends' if you call hanging out at someone's house and kissing for a few weeks dating.  I had no frame of reference for such blatant sex talk, but it didn't end there.  Throughout high school, more boys said things to me like that.  I was the girl they said shitty, slutty things to, even though I was one of the last girls in my graduating class to do any of those things.  There were 42 people in my graduating class, around 200 in my high school, and everyone knew everyone else's business.  My prudishness had as much to do with self-preservation as it did with anything else.

I knew I could have had sex in high school.  Every girl I knew could have.  But I wanted to hold out for love.  And I had discovered the magic of making out.  In her memoir, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, Susan Perkins-Gilman writes: "Making out, I'd quickly discovered, was the greatest activity ever invented in the history of the planet. As soon as I started making out with boys on a regular basis, I couldn't believe that vast segments of the human population ever did anything else. How, I wondered could people possibly pick up their dry cleaning, perform open-heart surgery, or teach high school mathematics when they could be making out instead? What was wrong with this world? Where were people's priorities?" 

I loved kissing, so when a boy at a party approached me, I let him kiss me because. I. Liked. It.  Good girls didn't go all the way, I knew that, but you could make out and maybe it would lead to a real relationship.  He'd see me Monday at school, remember our sweet hot kisses, and make me his girlfriend, give me his letter jacket to wear, his class ring, the whole nine. (I went to a 3A high school in Central Kansas from 1990-94 that was, admittedly, a little too 50s for it's own good.)

But, of course, that never happened.  I learned, as far as boys were concerned, I was fun backstage--in the dark where no one could see--but I was never the star of the show.

I look at the girls I teach, beautiful in each of their sizes, shapes, weights, and heights, and I pray none of them are being spoken to like I was--like I still am, sometimes.  I pray we've moved past the point where men feel like crass commentary is acceptable in terms of flirting.  I pray boys have gotten better with girls, and girls have learned how to say NO when they dislike something.  

But, of course, I know better.

I spent years trying to find love, trying to reconcile the playground images of boys and girls getting along, laughing, having fun and being partners with the other images of derision, sexualization and lusty groping that came later.  And it took me far too many trips around the block to realize you have to love who you are right now, no matter what anyone else says or who you hope to be in the future, you have to love who you are right now so you can defend her, nurture her, give her the room to say yes when it feels good and no when it feels bad.  And you have to keep doing it, over and over and over again, until it's as natural as breathing.

I let other people decide for me for so long that now I find myself loved by a good man who accepts me exactly as I am and it scares the shit out of me.  He loves me enough to hear every critical, irrational, and insecurvy thing I have to say without repercussions, without throwing it back at me, without making me feel bad for having emotions.  He loves me. And I have to let him.  I have to stop seeing myself as the girl boys used and let myself be the woman he loves.  

I have to get back to the swing set, the monkey bars, the effortless freedom of how I was in the beginning.

from 'Parthenogenesis'-Pablo Neruda

Well, I'll try to change for the better:
greet them all circumspectly,
watch out for appearances,
be dedicated, enthusiastic--
til I'm just what they ordered,
being an un-being at will
til I'm totally otherwise.

Then if they let me alone, 
I'll change my whle person,
disagree with my skin,
get a new mouth,
change my shoes and my eyes--
then when I'm different
and nobody can recognize me
--since anything else is unthinkable--
I'll go on as I was in the beginning.

30 January 2013

The Weight of the World

It's official. I am fat. According to every online chart, every BMI counter and weight calculator, every scale I step on, and every pair of jeans in the juniors section (which admittedly I've NEVER been able to wear), I am fat.

This is not new information.  For the past seven years, with a few stretches of lower weight due to increased gym time in an attempt to avoid the truth and sadness of my dissolving marriage, I have been fat. I have, in fact, at 5'5" weighed nearly the same thing as my 6' construction worker father.  Papa, bald and fit--who looks at least 15 years younger than his 63--carries his weight in his midsection which means he looks barrel chested most days.  Me...ehhh...not so much.

I'm blessed with an hourglass figure from my mother (who incidentally has been dissatisfied with her beautiful face and body every day of my life and, probably, nearly every day of hers).  This figure is most noticeable in pencil skirts that hug my hips and thighs and behind, a tight sweater that denotes my waist and breasts, and high heels that make my muscular calves look positively deadly.  But, seriously, who can dress like a 50s pin up every day?  Dresses are a good option, some skirts, but my body is better suited to fits and fashions of years gone by, so clothes shopping is a nightmare. Pants and jeans either pull across my middle resulting in the ever insulting camel-toe or pool in the lap area to accommodate a pooch I don't have.  If they fit in my thighs, they're too big in my waist; it's a grail-esque search to find things in stores I can afford which means, usually, I scour thrift shops for anything that works on what the world tells me is an overweight, plus sized, inappropriate body.

Despite all of that, most of the time I don't FEEL fat, and by that I mean I don't feel ashamed or worthless or embarrassed.  I am intelligent, well educated, strong in my profession, loved by a good man, surrounded by supportive friends and family, and I know I am beautiful. Not pretty, not cute, but beautiful.  I have near flawless skin, big expressive eyes, thick healthy hair, and my heart is wide and deep enough to love everyone I encounter unconditionally.  But, you can't deny the number on the scale, and that number--though only a teeny tiny rest stop in the brilliant and mammoth map of who I am--can break my heart all night long if I think about it too much .

I've recently been reading Scoot Over Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology, and it has gotten me to thinking about my weight. I've gained 70 pounds since high school.  70. And I'm starting to figure out where it all came from in a bigger than well-you-ate-too-much-pizza/burgers/pasta-and-drank-too-much-booze sort of way.  My high school boyfriend cheated on me. So did the next guy. And the third, the first real long term relationship I had, kept in close contact with his ex-girlfriends (emails and phone calls) and I didn't know it the whole first year we were together.  I gained 10 pounds for each of those.

Then, later, mom was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. 15 pounds of fear, loneliness, and terror.

The last 25 came between the end of college and the end of graduate school: a three year period during which I was so lost and terrified that I might not be substantive enough for anyone to want me, that I weighted myself down with food as a means of proving I was real.

But now, exactly 24 weeks to the day until my 37th birthday, I am ready to put this weight of the world away.  Not because I feel so terribly awful about my appearance or because I give two shits what anyone has to say about my body--seriously, fuck anyone who can't see past my size to the heart of who I really am.  It's finally clear to me that I don't need this weight to protect me from anything anymore.  I'm not trying to ward off guys who might treat me like garbage. I'm not trying to fight back the fear of losing someone I love.  And I'm not aimlessly trying to determine who the hell I am.

So, today's the day.  I agreed to participate in a half marathon in April knowing I'll mot liekly walk or jog the whole time, and I've started keeping a journal of how my body feels when I eat and when I work out.

It's time to get back to the healthy, unafraid girl I was at 18 and introduce her to the strong woman I am today.

In the words of the poet Paul Celan,

It is time the stone made an effort to flower,
time unrest had a beating heart.
It is time it were time.

It is time.