National Poetry Month

Hope is the thing with feathers

For the past few years, I’ve posted a shout out to National Poetry Month, but April almost got away from me. I’ve written about my love for Spoken Word here and a serendipitous poetry reading here. This year, I’m offering up a few lines from my favorite poem by Emily Dickinson, 314. (In fact, it’s such a favorite I’ve been planning a tattoo of the first line for several months now.)

If you’re not a reader of poetry, these suggestions published for National Poetry Month by the Academy of American Poets will help you dip your toe into a few poems. If you’re a little put off by poetry, don’t be–there are few, if any, rights or wrongs. Forget what your freshman English teacher told.

Just read!

I love fat books and I cannot lie: Dietland (review)

Diet Land
Sarai Walker

There may not be a woman in the Western world who hasn’t, at one time or another, had an issue with her weight. I know I have. For years I was too skinny. Then just right. Finally got a little-meat-on-my-bones okay. Putting-on-some pounds-better-watch-it. Downright overweight. Plenty has been written about The Struggle.

In her first novel, Dietland, writer Sarai Walker dives head first into empowerment and body image. (For women, that is. Do men even think twice this stuff?) Before I get too far into writing about Dietland, let me say it’s not for everyone. Walker’s characters curse plenty and slang is used instead of proper anatomical terms. There are descriptions of porn and a little self-pleasuring goes on. There’s also some pretty graphic descriptions of men who have been kidnapped and murdered. So this is where you decide whether or not to bail or read on. But unfiltered though it may be, Dietland covers some important territory.

Plum Kettle has tried it all since she was sixteen. Waist Watchers.  A famous diet of frozen meals and pills supplemented with meetings of evangelical proportion, called the Baptist Plan after founder Euylayla Baptist. Nothing has worked. Now pushing thirty, Plum is awaiting bariatric surgery. She’s apprehensive, but after a life of dieting, willing to take the risk. Plum works from home answering emails for a ‘tween beauty magazine Daisy Chain, spending hours a day responding to girls’ questions about cutting, small breasts, creepy stepbrothers, and more. When editor Kitty Montgomery calls her into the office one morning, Plum falls into a rabbit hole of revolutionary feminists whose goal is to bring the system down. Some of the revolutionaries are social justice workers with a positive, albeit radical, outlook–and others, not so much. (Which is where the kidnapping, murder, and dismembering–usually with the emphasis on “member”–of those men comes into play.)

Plum’s first awakening is to let go of her obsession with food–instigated by an offer of $20,000 if she follows a transformative “diet” plan suggested by Verena Baptist, daughter of the late weight loss guru. Plum finds community at a women’s cooperative. She sleeps (and eats) a lot. She develops a fashion style. Plum, like so many women who finally come to terms with their bodies, recognizes she needs to change from the inside out.

Walker alternates the stories of the characters’ present with their past–and we discover that even the women who resort to violence are driven by our culture’s misogynist response to them. Dietland is a difficult book to read in many ways–one that tells the truth, but tells is slant, as Miss Emily Dickinson would say.

If you’d like to pair your reading of Walker’s fiction with a good memoir, be sure to read Half-Assed by Jennette Fulda. Plum and her feminist band would love Fulda’s honesty, wit, and sass–I know I did.

So there you have it. Feminism and weight loss are not mutually exclusive. I know–because when my own weight loss was an inside job it was empowering, not repressive.

My Book Breakup: The Shadow Land (review)

The Shadow Land (NetGalley)
Elizabeth Kostova
Ballantine Books
release date: April 11, 2017

I’ve never read horror –or monster–stories. (Except I do love my Frankenstein!) Most teens go through a scare-the-wits-out-of-me reading phase, but not me. So you wouldn’t think I’d fall for a book about shadow landDracula, but I did. And let’s face it. The Historian got so much buzz when it was published, how could I not? The adventures of Paul and Helen searching Vlad the Impaler’s burial place in Bulgaria and Budapest–the mountains, the monasteries, the countryside–were just as thrilling as the tales of Dracula. The novel was myth layered over history layered over politics and even at 647 pages I didn’t want it to end.

So I was so excited to get an advance digital copy of Elizabeth Kostova’s third novel, The Shadow Land. The publisher’s blurb said only that a young American in Bulgaria is left holding an “ornately carved wooden box” and inside? “… an urn filled with human ashes.” The girl, it seems, mistakenly takes the bag of a handsome gentleman she bumps into in a taxi line. Sounded to me like I might go on another romp to Vlad’s stomping grounds–could this be another (true) vampire story? Because, remember, at the end of The Historian, the narrator gets a small velvet book that isn’t hers …

But no. This is a story about that American, Alexandra Boyd, and her attempts to return those ashes. She’s befriended by taxi driver Bobby Iliev, who drives her from the city of Sofia to a monastery to the mountains to another village … and they’re always just behind (or maybe it’s ahead of) the Man Who Lost His Bag. Kostova alternates several tales: the race to return the ashes, Alexandra’s childhood, Stoyan Lazarov (he of the ashes), and, eventually, Bobby’s background. The only horror in the novel is the horror of Bulgaria’s past as a Soviet bloc country. For my reading taste, it was a patchwork of stories that never quite came together. And, sadly, didn’t hold my interest.

I’ve become quite familiar with the disappointment of reading books that don’t meet my standards for good storytelling. So I think what bothers me the most is this–was my dislike of Shadow Land based on the story itself–or the writing–or the fact that for months I had been anticipating a return to The Historian? It’s happened before. I was captivated by The Thirteenth Tale and then aghast at Bellman & Black. (Maybe “aghast” is a little strong … ) If you read enough, you’ll read plenty of clunkers.

The Shadow Land will be released on Tuesday, April 11, and I’m impatient to read what other reviewers have to say. Who knows? Maybe it’s just me.

Flash Fiction Friday

He waited in staging, number 24 whitewashed on the back window. A ’65 Plymouth. Powder blue, white top. He’d wrenched and torqued and greased every inch under the hood. He was ready. He figured he’d at least get 85 out of her. Maybe 90 if he timed his shifting just right. The Tree held at yellow, then flashed green. He popped the clutch, started down the straightaway, then doubled it into gear. Too much, too soon. “Damn!” and it was over before he could figure out what had gone wrong.

The flagman dropped the red and he pulled off the track until his next run.

Weaving through the crowd, he looked for her. She was still in the stands, he hoped. She hated the race track. Hated spending every Saturday night under the lights, under a cloud of gas fumes. Hated the sound of tires peeling off at the start, the heat of the blacktop, the dust hanging heavy.

He found her, finally. Sitting at the top of the stands as far away, it seemed, as she could possibly get. Her hair fell over her face and when he called her name she quickly slid a paperback under her leg and looked up.

“Oh! All ready?” she asked.

“One more–I haven’t qualified.” He knew she wasn’t counting. Probably hadn’t even watched him, but she smiled.

And he carried it with him, warm and radiant, as he found his way back to the Plymouth. Pulling the car around to the start again, he waited.

[The flash fiction “The Drags”, 2016 draft, appeared first on This Is My Symphony.]

You’ll look sweet upon the seat: Hello, Bicycle (review)

Hello Bicycle (Blogging For Books)
Anna Brones
Ten Speed Press

Six years ago I treated myself to a new bicycle. I read reviews, talked with biking friends, browsed online, and finally went to a local bike shop to make my purchase. It was the Real Deal: a shiny black and chrome city bike. I was in love. Twice a week I rode two miles to the Farmer’s Market, packed up my saddle baskets with goodies, and pedaled back home.  I biked to the library. To neighborhood association meetings. And sometimes up to a nearby technical high school just to delight in the winding roads of their campus.

This little gem by Anna Brones, Hello, Bicycle: an inspired guide to the two-wheeled life, makes me long for those lazy summer days when I can get pedaling once again. The book definitely isn’t for the snooty serious rider–those spandexed, be-numbered riders with calves of steel who hunch over handlebars like it’s the Tour de France. Rather, it’s for the rider who might still be a bit daunted riding in traffic and is just getting used to having helmet hair. Hello, Bicycle is like sitting down with a chatty friend who has a few good tips to share. You know, the kind of friend whose enthusiasm is so catching you can’t resist joining their latest adventure.

There are tips I’d put in the everyday advice column: wear a helmet, pack a rain jacket, use bike lanes. And then Brones turns into that chatty friend I mentioned. She oh-so-casually-like-it’s-no-big-deal writes about touring and slow rolls and S240s. Before you know it, I have the Peterson’s Official S240 Packing List” asterisked, as well as arrows drawn on the page “Pantry and Kitchen Essentials for Cyclists.” Who do I think I am?! My longest ride has been all of five miles. But that’s just it–Brones makes it seem doable for even the novice cyclist. Add James Gulliver Hancock’s cute illustrations and catchy graphics, and Hello, Bicycle is both a how-to manual and an inspirational all-in-one. (The photos on this post are from the illustrators website.)

In my own Great Lake state, we’ve put winter behind us. The robins arrived a few weeks ago, and days have lengthened. The snow is long gone (we hope!) and the littlest bit of sunshine has us swapping out our down jackets for windbreakers. I’ve a mind to take my bike out of winter storage this weekend. Hello, Bicycle would be the perfect gift for Someone Special who is thinking about getting back in the saddle seat or who has that new bicycle and is ready to roll.