Women Writers Wednesday 2/25/15

This week’s review comes to us from Rebecca Burns. She has taken on Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, which is about the end of the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir of Iceland.

Burns herself has a new book out, The Settling Earth. In her own words, it is “a collection of interlinked historical short stories set in colonial New Zealand. It fictionalises the experiences of settlers in the nineteenth century, and how British settlers made sense of life in a new land. A story written by a Maori guest author is also included, Continue reading “Women Writers Wednesday 2/25/15”

Women Writers Wednesday 2/18/15

Before I introduce this week’s review, I want to say how much I’ve been enjoying the Women Writers Wednesday series. It started as a desire to demonstrate some of the many contributions women have made to literature — a flickering candleflame of one blog rebelling against the general misogyny of the publishing world’s corner of social media. When I put the call out to other women writers, the response was strong. This weekly series is booked all the way to May, with new additions still coming in. I’ve been thrilled with the response and appreciate it so much. I love not being a lone voice. Thank you, sincerely, to everyone who has participated in any way: fellow reviewers, people who share these posts on social media, those who are reading them, those who are simply voicing their support of the concept. Thank you so much.

So this week’s installment comes from Tria Wood, who responds to Excavation: A Memoir by Wendy C. Ortiz. This book came out last year from Future Tense Books.


When I was a senior in high school, my favorite teacher took me aside one day. “Be careful in college,” she warned, “because there are professors who will try to seduce you by telling you how intelligent you are.” I nodded, but thought otherwise. I know I’m smart, I said to myself. What I want is someone to tell me I’m beautiful. I wasn’t yet equipped to recognize the truth in my teacher’s warning: that to be a smart girl is sometimes so difficult that it becomes a vulnerability that can be exploited.

Wendy C. Ortiz’s Excavation: A Memoir tells the story of the five-year relationship Ortiz had with one of her junior high teachers, whom she calls Jeff Ivers. Her careful diary-keeping during those years helps craft a text that is rich with detail and immediacy. Ortiz guides the reader through the story of this relationship and her adult reflections on it with skill and poetic flair. Throughout the text, Ortiz performs the excavation promised by the title; the digging she must do to tell her story is illustrated by short scenes from her adult life, including a walk along the La Brea Tar Pits with her infant daughter. The past, preserved as if in sticky tar, is pulled up excruciatingly, and becomes something she can examine and learn from.

Excavation (cover art)

“During those teenage years my self-worth was something I felt was small enough to hold,” Ortiz writes. “It was my pen, my paper and sometimes, maybe, my ability to attract people to me.” It is into this need that Mr. Ivers steps. By appealing first to her intelligence—her writing—and next her attractiveness, he manipulates her into an on-again, off-again relationship that she feels obligated to maintain due to complicated combinations of attraction, shame, and fear of being “average.” As Ortiz also negotiates relationships with boys her age and ponders the attraction she feels toward girls, Mr. Ivers becomes a touchstone for her, a knot she must work at until it finally unravels.

author Wendy C. Ortiz
author Wendy C. Ortiz

Throughout this memoir, Ortiz captures the rolling emotional boil of being a teenager, the overwhelming intensity of every feeling, whether high or low. I especially recognized the sense of power the young Ortiz feels in fits and starts at the idea that someone—this man—wants her. At that age, it doesn’t matter that this power might be an illusion. It matters only that it provides some small barricade against the debilitating void of wanting to be wanted. As an adult, I can see each of Mr. Ivers’s abusive machinations for what it is, yet I cannot blame the young Ortiz for being lured in by him. His character and methods will ring true to anyone who has been in a manipulative or emotionally abusive relationship; he is an expert at making her feel she must stay with him, clinging to her even as he cuts her down and pushes her away.

Secret relationships like this one seem to stud smart girls’ teenage years; think Angela Chase and Jordan Catalano in their boiler room makeout sessions. In the midst of our wanting, someone appears, seems to see something in us that no one else does, and we become satisfied with the pittance of attention that he allots us behind closed doors. In high school, I had this kind of relationship with a boy my own age; in reading Excavation, I realize that the fact that I didn’t fall for some older man’s overtures is perhaps due only to the fact that no man ever made them.


Tria Wood is a writer and educator living in Houston, Texas. Her poetry and creative nonfiction have recently appeared in Rattle, Sugar House Review, Bayou, and Literary Mama. My Life as a Doll, a large-scale literary art installation she created with artist Tara Conley, was exhibited at DiverseWorks Artspace in Houston in 2011. Find her online at triawood.com.


To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

The Allowance Conundrum

When I was a kid, I got an allowance. It was tied to my chores, and if I did them, I got my dollar or two a week. I saved it in a thick glass Snoopy bank that cleverly had no stopper, so in order to get the money out, I had to literally break the bank. Once I figured that out, the money started going into a wallet. I’m sure I must have spent it here or there, but the only place I really remember doing so was at the annual Book Fair at my school’s library. I have a vivid memory of excitedly counting out seven dollars when I was in second grade, money I had carefully saved, knowing that I would be able to buy not only three new books for myself, but new bookmarks and tree ornaments for my siblings for Christmas. Good times.

When I had children of my own and the “gimme!” tantrums began every time we went to the store, I realized it was time to give them an allowance. But I didn’t like the idea of paying them to clean up after themselves. Picking up your toys when you’re done playing with them and putting your dirty clothes in the hamper are skills you should have by kindergarten. My husband and I wanted our kids to be able to pick up after themselves because they are capable of it and it’s appropriate that they should; we are not their maids.

As they got older, we wanted them to assume more responsibilities, like helping to set the table or bringing their dirty dishes to the sink. Carrying their backpacks out of the car every afternoon. Making their beds. And if they grew up with the expectation that we would pay them to be, essentially, functioning members of the household, then they would never have the motivation not to be slobs if there weren’t a monetary reward. (And if this seems like an unrealistic concern, then you’re hanging out with much more evolved children than we are.)


Speaking of more evolved children… My friend Steven Tesney recently published this post on the Daddy Issues blog about the way they handle allowances in his family, and it’s an interesting system — more sophisticated in its philosophy than most I’ve encountered so far. I’m interested in what you think of it.


So instead of paying our kids to not be slobs, we started giving them a few dollars a week for no other reason than to have it, just so they can learn how to manage money for themselves. If they want to buy candy or Pokémon cards from the grocery store, that’s coming out of their allowance. We give them a smallish amount, because there’s not really much call for them to need to spend their money; we pay for things like gifts for their friends and extra fun things at school and outings. We give them bonuses, too: if they participate in a big chore (like helping us clean the cars or pulling weeds from the garden or raking leaves in the yard), there’s extra money for that; if we go to a festival or on vacation, we give them a chunk of money to spend on souvenirs and games and rides, and anything they don’t spend, they get to keep.

And if they don’t do their chores? They lose privileges like screen time.

But our system isn’t perfect. I wonder whether we’re giving them enough money. Some people advocate a dollar for each year of age per week, but most of the people I know who do that have only one child. Even though we tell the kids they need to divide their allowance equally between “spend,” “save,” and “donate,” sometimes the lines between those blur a little when Tiny Beowulf really wants to spend money on something. Sometimes they lose one of those little banks or wallets somewhere in the depths of their closets or bedrooms and choose to compromise quickly rather than spend some time looking for their stuff. The inconsistency makes it difficult to establish a good habit.

What do you do? If you have kids, how do you handle allowances, if at all? If you don’t have kids yourself but received an allowance when you were young, how did you earn it, and did the mechanics of your family’s system work well? I’m interested in hearing how the allowance debate is treated these days among all of you.

Please, discuss.  🙂


Women Writers Wednesday 2/11/15

This week’s review, of Fingerprints of You by Kristen-Paige Madonia, comes to us from Brenna Layne, whose bio follows.


My mother got her third tattoo on my seventeenth birthday, a small navy hummingbird she had inked above her left shoulder blade, and though she said she picked it to mark my flight from childhood, it mostly had to do with her wanting to sleep with Johnny Drinko, the tattoo artist who worked in the shop outside town.


KP Madonia cover


With her very first sentence, Kristen-Paige Madonia paints a vivid portrait of the relationship between a mother and daughter. Judy Blume has called Madonia’s writing “luminous,” “original,” and “compelling.” As far as I’m concerned, if Judy Blume likes something, that’s reason enough to give it a try. As it happens, there’s a lot to love about this impressive debut novel.

Madonia tells the story of seventeen-year-old Lemon, who leaves her nomadic mother, Stella, and sets off on a journey of her own. As Lemon seeks out the father she’s never known, she carries her unborn baby, certain that her own child will never know its father. From the hot haze of a Virginia summer to the chaos and color of San Francisco, Lemon embarks on the best kind of odyssey—both outward, into the larger world, and inward, discovering exactly who she is and what matters most.

The interaction between quietly rebellious Lemon and larger-than-life Stella will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever felt overshadowed by a parent. Lemon’s struggle to define her life and relationships on her own terms is an instantly recognizable one, and her thoughtful, introspective voice brings it strongly to life. Both wonderfully quirky and sometimes painfully authentic, Lemon’s story is compelling from the first, marvelous opening sentence.

I’ve now read and re-read Fingerprints of You, and what strikes me most is Madonia’s ability to home in on the specific—one girl’s cross-country bus trip—while at the same time telling a classically American coming-of-age story, but with a difference. One of Lemon’s favorite books, On the Road, comes up again and again. Lemon, too, is on the road, but with an important difference—she’s a girl. American literature is full of stories of boys who hit the road, hop trains, see the world. It’s refreshing to read about a girl embarking on this iconic American journey. And it’s powerful. In her search to find where she belongs, not only for herself but for the child within her, she brings a new element of femininity to a familiar and usually masculine theme.

With her distinctive voice and wry sense of humor, Lemon is an entertaining narrator. With her flawed yet lovable personality, she’s one with which real teens can identify. But Fingerprints of You, like all the best young adult literature, is a great read for adults, too. The lessons Lemon learns on her journey are ones that we can all use reminding of from time to time. We all leave fingerprints on each other, indelibly marking each other’s lives in ways both great and small. And, as Madonia shows us, recognizing and accepting those invisible tattoos is an unavoidable step in the difficult and beautifully messy journey of growing up.

I was fortunate to meet Kristen-Paige Madonia at a local writer’s group shortly after the publication of Fingerprints of You. I’ve met a number of YA novelists over the past few years, but Madonia is the one who really stands out. She was engaged, helpful, and encouraging. I met her at a point in my own writing journey when I was becoming overwhelmed by discouragement. Her kindness and generosity in sharing her own journey—both its ups and downs—was a powerful reminder to me that as writers, we’re all on this journey together, and that no one, no matter how accomplished, has an easy time of it. Like its creator, Madonia’s work is encouraging, powerful, and deeply humane. Not bad fingerprints to leave on the publishing industry, or on the world in general.


Brenna Layne writes fantasy novels about young adults because she believes in magic, likes dragons, and hasn’t figured out how to be a grown-up yet. She is currently seeking an agent. She lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her family and a growing menagerie of stray dogs, cats, and chickens. She blogs about the intersections between writing and life at www.brennalayne.com. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys beekeeping and broadsword combat.


To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

Call for Poetry Submissions

Last April, for National Poetry Month, I decided to feature a different poet (and poem) every day for thirty days. This series was wildly popular, and it made me really happy to be able to feature so many poets whom I knew among the thirty, including both seasoned, established writers and promising up-and-comers. You can find the first poem here and then just follow the daily links to the whole month of poetry.

I’d like to run this series again this year, but instead of coming up with the idea literally on April 1st and putting the whole series together in a few days, I want to curate the list from a wider spectrum and have more time to do it.

SO I’m announcing here today a call for poetry submissions! If you’d like to have your work considered for my National Poetry Month Poet-a-Day series, then please email me at forest.of.diamonds@gmail.com with “Poet-a-Day series” in the subject line. (Please do this so your email doesn’t get lost in my crowded inbox.) Give me a brief bio of yourself (75-100 words or shorter) and submit up to five poems. Response time will be no later than April (obviously). The deadline to be considered for this year’s series is March 15th.

And do please spread the word about this opportunity. Thank you!

Women Writers Wednesday 2/4/15

This week’s installment in the Women Writers Wednesday series, a review of Sorrow by Catherine Gammon, comes to us from Geri Lipschultz. (Her bio appears later in this post.)


A Feminine Raskolnikov

This book is a deep cut into the human condition that was simmering in the 90s and is still simmering now, although now, we are letting some of the heat out. The timing of Catherine Gammon’s Sorrow could not be more perfect. Early on, the reader realizes just how dark the world of this book will be. Early on, we wonder where relief will come, what will justify this journey. What come to mind are such books as Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, Chronology of Water, Leslie Marmon’s Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, along with the obvious Crime and Punishment—cruel, disturbing, harrowing stories that do not fail to offer redemption. This book stays with you because of manner in which the sorrow is investigated, the way the main character acts out and acts in, how she implodes, how she relives in her words what the reader takes in and must relive along with her.


We meet Anita in her twenties, a young woman living in an apartment in NYC with her mother, having done so for more than fifteen years. The two of them have left the others of the nuclear family who still reside in L.A. For fifteen years the sorrow has been mounting for Anita. Little by little we hear about her history, a history of sexual abuse that begins to explain why she has casual sex, why her super Cruz Garcia seems to have this need to protect her, why Cruz Garcia’s nephew, Tomas, who arrives from war-stricken El Salvador, takes an interest, why the violence and the disturbance within Anita cannot be abated by her visits with Sister Monica, why the suggestion of holding babies just won’t cut it. I begin with a spoiler alert, because this book is not so much about what happens as it is about the why and how of it. Of course one confronts the “what” first, which might be considered the path of story’s concern with a crime and its resolution. The reader knows who done it, but it takes the suspicious detective a long time to come around. The details I will reserve for the reader, as the details are what Nabokov says must be “caressed,” and they are very much caressed in this book.

One reads Sorrow the way one reads and re-reads any book of literature, intuiting, dreading, possibly even knowing what will happen and wishing that it wouldn’t—wishing that somehow, something within this reading, the second or third, even, will morph, and the character will make a different choice. As if it were possible, as if there were language, as if she could speak.

The reader engages with the characters—all of them here deeply, fully, beautifully rendered, but it is primarily through Anita that we experience the action. We meet Anita at a time when she’s compelled to act. Something must be done. We see this, not knowing exactly, but there are clues. There is a knife, there are her meanderings, there is the general time that is a pre-war time in New York City, that becomes the first Gulf War, a depressing time. The story is as grounded in place as it is in character and the general circumstances of her life, a history that we will come to know as it reasserts itself, a history of profound abuse, more than even the reader can bear.

It might not appear that any one thing has precipitated this need of hers “to leave,” as she says on page two, and it will appear that this leaving is euphemistic for the ultimate leaving. A few words later, we find out that she’s thinking “she might even kill” this man she invariably meets in the elevator where she works. “He was a little blond-haired blue-eyed beetle of a man”—who, we are told, reminds her of a “flat toy man.” He is twice flattened, so to speak—the man, the first man of the book—there will be many, too many. The image of an insect, lowered to that of a one-dimensional thing—a toy, no less. As if this character could nullify the abuser, disparage the actual men, the men—one of whom we will also follow—who also preceded this man who is simply someone whose gaze she doesn’t appreciate. It’s a small moment, but it prepares us, it show us where she stands—as she sees herself, having just two options, between the choices of murder and suicide. We see an almost pitiless, unsentimental, articulate, desperate woman. She is not easy to place when this book opens, where we see her unthinkable plight clearly spelled out for us. It’s a book about a young woman trying to find an identity, a self, from within the projection cast upon her that she has had no choice but to interiorize. This is a book about a mother-daughter relationship. It’s a book about a disenfranchised mother, along with the significantly more disenfranchised daughter, along with a neighborhood filled with disenfranchised immigrants, along with Anita’s childhood friend Jimmy Rivers, an African American man held in custody for a crime of passion, who speaks of a police department not too different from the one that exists now, twenty years hence.

What Gammon has managed to do in this book, which was written twenty years ago, revised for its publication last year, is to give voice to the silenced, the disempowered, the disenfranchised. She has listened to their cries, and she has aired them, and she has been, as Eve Ensler has declared on the back cover, unflinching in her portrayal of the details. She has been generous in her depiction of character, one after the other, fully rounded, with rich backstories that paint the human condition in not so easily dismissed colors. One grows fond of this bunch gravitating around Anita: the bodyguard-like loyalty of Cruz Garcia, the would-be assassin Tomas, the self-deprecating Sister Monica. Gammon writes with prose that sings—calling attention to itself in the passion of the martyr Jimmy Rivers, and in the breakdown of language experienced by Anita, herself—and the effect is brilliantly, disturbingly stunning.

Gammon, Catherine. Sorrow. Braddock, PA: Braddock Avenue Books (2013).


Geri Lipschultz has a Ph.D. from Ohio University and an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared or will appear in New York Times, College English, Kalliope, Black Warrior Review, The Toast, Helen and 5X5, as well as in Pearson’s Literature: Introduction to Reading and Writing, Spuyten Duyvil’s The Wreckage of Reason II, and Up, Do (Spider Road Press). She was awarded a Creative Artists in Public Service (CAPS) grant from New York State, and won the fiction 2012 award from So to Speak. Her one-woman show was produced in NYC by Woodie King, Jr. You may find her on Twitter here: @alicebluegown1.


To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.