12 Days of Earworm-Worthy Christmas Music

One of my Thanksgiving traditions, in place for as long as I can remember, is seeing the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade on television. As a young adult, I would wrap Christmas presents while I watched it. Now that I have children and host the holiday at my house, I don’t catch the whole parade, but I do make sure it’s playing so my kids can see it if they want — Dear Husband is indifferent to this one — and so I can drift in and out of the room to take in snatches of it while I’m preparing dinner or getting the house ready for guests.

This year I happened to see Gwen Stefani performing “White Christmas” in celebration of her new Christmas album. I’ve always liked Stefani well enough: I liked a lot of the music she made with No Doubt and on her own, and I’m a fellow red lipstick devotee. It was a cute performance. Nothing spectacular, but the parade’s singing performances often aren’t, seeing as the artists are lip-synching in sometimes frigid weather and moving around on floats. But I was intrigued by the idea that she’d put out an album.

I don’t follow celebrity gossip all that much, but it has been tough the last year or so to go to the grocery store and not see Stefani’s personal drama splashed all over the checkout aisle. Apparently she’s with a country music singer now? And there’s some ugliness with his ex? I try not to get involved. Well, if I hadn’t known that before, just listening to the song previews of her new Christmas album — which did not list “White Christmas,” by the way — would have told me things had changed format.

The album is a mix of traditional and new, original songs. Just listening to thirty seconds of each song clued me in to a new twang in her voice on all the standards and a mention of God in just about every single new song. Ska this is not.

When I was a child, my younger siblings and I fought all the time. So much, in fact, that I’m not sure how we managed to become friends as adults, except that we all live in different cities. And when I began teaching and read my students’ essays about the good times they shared with their siblings and how they cared for and played with one another, I didn’t see how something like that was possible. It felt like my siblings and I had grown up as outliers.

But there was one utterly magical moment, during a December when we were all in grade school, that I hope I never forget. The three of us had gotten out of bed one night, just randomly and without consulting each other first, and all sat down in front of the huge, lit, decorated Christmas tree in the otherwise dark living room, and we just started singing “Silent Night.” To this day I have no idea how or why we started doing it, but there it was, just one perfect and peaceful moment. Then we all went back to bed. It’s the only time, I think, we ever did anything like that, and I have no idea whether our parents knew about it, since they neither interrupted the moment nor commented on it afterward.

But I like that song.

 

Women Writers Wednesday 10/21/15

I could wax unpoetic here about how I used to teach The Catcher in the Rye back when I taught 9th grade English, about the way one of my colleagues taught it as a Buddhist text, the debate between whether that book is a glorious masterpiece or a slice of Americana that has outlived its usefulness in adult life.

But I’d much rather get out of the way, and just present this week’s Women Writers Wednesday, a thoughtful and elegant look at Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, which comes to us from Sukhada Tatke.

***

Envy Joanna Rakoff for her Salinger Year

For any JD Salinger lover, or for that matter, any literature lover, Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year is a delectable treat into which one can bury oneself and come out, once done, feeling refreshed and thrilled. Envy is not an accident, but a lingering feeling which accompanies every turned page.

courtesy of www.penguinrandomhouse.com
courtesy of http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com

The book opens in New York, which remains the thread that binds the writer’s experiences as she maneuvers through the complex, multifarious labyrinth that is the city and her own life. Rakoff’s is a story of hundreds, even thousands, of young aspiring writers in New York whose “tote bags (are) heavy with manuscripts.” After completing her Master’s degree in English Literature, she ditches her “college boyfriend” and makes her way to New York with dreams of becoming a poet. But like everyone coming to a big city, she is in want of a job that can pay her. Within days, she finds herself being interviewed in an anachronistic and dark office of Harold Ober Associates, which she refers to as “the Agency” in the book. She lands the job only when she assures her interviewer that she can type: on a typewriter.

It is only after she starts working at the Agency that she realizes the enormity of whom it represents. “Never, ever, ever are you to give out (Jerry’s) address or phone number,” her boss tells her on her first day at work. Among the first funny moments in the book is Rakoff’s confession that the only Jerry who comes to her mind then is Seinfeld.

Considering herself an earnest student of literature, Rakoff had never regarded Salinger as a serious story-teller. “I didn’t want to be entertained. I wanted to be provoked,” she says in her defense for having skipped the most influential American writer of the 20th Century.

One is often left feeling that Rakoff happened to be in the right place at the right time. But how many would have done justice to their Salinger year the way she does?

As a perceptive observer and gleaming story-teller, Rakoff’s narration brings to life the charming moments—charming, however, often exclusively to the reader and not to those living them—that take place in this Agency which clutches its old ways. Her recounting is laced not with contempt for the older generation which refuses to move forth with time, but with nonchalant amusement. My Salinger Year is as much a story about the literary and publishing world in Manhattan and the wave of transition that had hit it, forcing it to make the shift from Dictaphones and typewriters to computers in the dot com era, as it is a coming-of-age memoir where Rakoff is forced to gallop into adulthood.

The writer of her story reminds me of my favorite Salinger character, Franny Glass, who is trying to understand the ways of the world, slipping into depression every now and then.

Rakoff is at a crossroads that life brings one to when one is evolving and struggling to find one’s self. She learns that she has to repay a loan her father had taken for her education without her knowledge, ends up with a job she doesn’t necessarily like, gets her life entangled with a reckless boyfriend who is differently wired from her, and comes to terms with the changing arc of friendship with a woman she calls her best friend. Jenny, like Rakoff, had dreams of writing but gave them up for a suburban path which she deems easy. “‘I know,’ I said reflexively, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to be normal. I wanted to be extraordinary. I wanted to write novels and make films and speak ten languages and travel around the world. I wanted everything. So, I thought, had Jenny.”

The protagonist of the story, Salinger himself––for who else could be a protagonist in a book mentioning the man––is behind phone conversations with Rakoff, or hushed discussions surrounding him. His is a continual presence, of course, as his name lurks around in the cupboards of the Agency on hard paperback editions of his books.

What surprised me most pleasantly was the portrayal of the reclusive writer who had, in my imagination, metamorphosed into a grumpy old man begrudging his popularity; someone he barely resembles during his limited interactions with Rakoff over the phone. His tone is genial, almost affable when he refers to Joanna with names other than her own, thanks to his debilitating hearing.

Rakoff’s struggles as an aspiring writer in New York are as real as the struggles of Salinger’s characters, although bereft of the sense of unresolved grief that stings the latter. Salinger’s characters, be they the most popular adolescent hero Holden Caulfield or the war veteran Seymour Glass who commits suicide, are rife with melancholia and gloom. Rakoff meets them at a time when her own life is prickled with angst, much like the fraternity and sorority in Salinger’s work.

Rakoff’s Salinger moment was somehow waiting to happen until she entered her 20s. Perplexed by her own life and curious about the legend, she embarks on her Salinger journey on a weekend her boyfriend goes to a friend’s wedding alone. She pores over his work, reading one book after the other until she is done. That’s when she begins to relate to, even appreciate, the fan mail addressed to Salinger, that she painstakingly answers as part of her job.

courtesy of guzelonlu.com
courtesy of guzelonlu.com

Salinger’s work is timeless and age is only an unnecessary constraint. To bracket his work as being for children or teenagers is as good as depriving one’s life of the treasures required to enrich it. After all, what are love, loss, grief, nostalgia, despair, isolation, and desperation, if not lifelong companions? My Salinger Year celebrates these and pays homage to a man who deserves every bit of it.

***

Sukhada Tatke is a freelance writer and journalist based in Houston. She has previously worked in Mumbai at The Times of India and The Hindu. Her writings have appeared in Scroll.in, Texas Monthly, and The Houston Chronicle. Her pet topics include social inequality, cultural heritage, and everyday life. She tweets at @ASuitableGirl, and you can find more of her work on www.sukhadatatke@contently.com.

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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 Pep Rally I Cannot Forget

“We’ve got spirit, yes we do! We’ve got spirit, how about you?” the cheerleaders yell at one-third of our student body at a time. The children repeat the chant back to them: lower school’s high-pitched squeal as they indulge for a moment in sanctioned hyperactivity; middle school’s thick tenor as they toe the line between wanting to please their beautiful, smiling cheerleaders and practicing disaffection; the seismic grunting of the upper school whose voice is filled up mainly with the dark yell of the football teams.

I grew up and still live here in Texas, where some boys learn to play football before they learn to write sentences with punctuation. And after twenty years in education, most of it in a high school, there are three things I’ve done more of than most people I know: listen to commencement speeches, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and attend pep rallies.

This weekend is homecoming. Yesterday morning’s rally was typical fare: excellent gymnastics from our athletic cheerleaders to some of the most bastardized pop music I’ve ever heard; hilarious relay races performed by selected students; questionably funny/unintentionally offensive banter from the student emcees; cheering from the entire student body, the youngest kids always the loudest. There’s a certain persistent tension between wanting to support my student athletes, whom I genuinely like and appreciate for how hard they work in my challenging English class, and being a little put off by the showy displays of ego, the occasional misogyny, and the weird association some within football culture make between their sport and fighting a war. I find it difficult, sometimes, to reconcile that machismo with the thoughtful, earnest attempts to understand Shakespeare at their tender age, their noble, generous struggle to write the most engaging personal essays and the most thoughtful literary analysis they can. On Fridays, I want to ask them, Who are you, really? Which you is most you? How much of that stuff do you believe? How much of it do they, like Tim O’Brien says, feel in their guts? Which part of them is the most real?

 

football players drawing

 

But of all the debatably outrageous things I’ve seen at pep rallies over the course of my life­­––including, once, seeing a boy rip the water balloon-soaked t-shirt from his body in front of everyone––nothing compares to what we were subjected to when I was in second grade, and every time I attend a pep rally, I cannot help but think about it.

It was 1981 in Houston. That year, Reagan had entered the White House and survived an assassination attempt, Pope John Paul II had survived an assassination attempt, and we had launched the Space Shuttle program and with it, the collective aspirations of every Star Wars fan I knew, myself included, that one day we would personally explore the heavens. On a more intimate scale, Han Solo had taken the job of Badass Archaeology Professor in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lady Diana had married Prince Charles in the most Cinderella dress I’d ever seen outside of a Disney movie, and I’d won my first spelling bee. Our teacher had shown us a picture in the newspaper of a unicorn born in California, cementing my passionate belief that these mythical creatures were real, and no amount of skeptics claiming it was just a one-horned goat could sway my fervor. The world lay at our feet, rich with possibility and promise. I planned to be an Egyptologist and had my father wake me up at 5:00 on a Saturday morning so I could watch the funeral of Anwar Sadat on television, because I wanted to see him entombed in a pyramid.

At my small, private elementary school, we gathered together in the gym on Fridays for prayer service in the morning and a pep rally in the afternoon, festooned in the blue-and-gold buttons and spirit ribbons we could buy for a quarter each week and pin to our clothes to show support for our team. Some of my cousins also attended this school, and one of them, Craig, was in the eighth grade. I loved Craig, who was kind and fun and always had a hug for me when I saw him around campus, even though I was a little kid. He also played football, a fact I hadn’t realized until one day, at a pep rally, he and a bunch of his classmates and teammates were brought up onstage, put onto metal folding chairs, and blindfolded. What was about to commence was a kissing contest.

Now, remember that this was the barely-post-1970s, pre-AIDS era of kissing booths. Every carnival and state fair, on television and in real life, had one. Even our little parish’s church bazaar did, replete with a Farrah Fawcett lookalike inside it.

 

Farrah Fawcett
Doesn’t she look excited to be here? Come on, Farrah, give us a kiss.

 

So the idea that the boys were all going to be kissed at the pep rally was entertaining. They were blindfolded because they were going to judge the kissing on a scale from one to ten, with ten being the highest. They were instructed to keep their hands on the sides of their chairs. As the principal explained the rules, the boys grinned, huge bracey smiles stretching to the edges of the folded bandanas over their eyes. In their uniform navy trousers and white Oxford shirts, their pimpled faces largely obscured, it was hard to tell them apart.

Then came the kicker. The girls who were going to be kissing the boys, whose smooches would be evaluated by them, were our junior high teachers. That’s right, the middle-aged women who taught these kids grammar, theology, social studies, algebra were now going to plant their puckers on them, too. The one man on the academic faculty, the junior high science teacher, was exempt from this game.

The student body roared with laughter and glee. The boys, now trapped on their folding chairs by blindfolds and the cheering crowd, grinned or snickered or squirmed, but not a single one stood up or yanked off his blindfold or even held up his hand to halt the proceedings or ask a question. A few of them rapidly fidgeted their sneakers back and forth. Their chairs were spaced a few feet apart, so if they were talking to each other, I’m not sure much of it got through between the bandanas around their heads and the noise of the younger students, the children whom they, as eighth grade boys, were routinely told to man up in front of, to set a good example for as the leaders of the school.

The kissing started. One at a time, a teacher would go to her boy and smooch him on the lips. The crowd whooped and hollered. Then the boy would grin again, still blindfolded, and give his rating. Craig got the most laughs when he pronounced his religion teacher––a tall, stocky grandmother with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair––a fourteen. Soon the kissing was done. The teachers moved offstage, anonymous to the football players at least during the glistening moment of the pep rally. The boys were told they could remove their blindfolds, and their faces were red as they observed their fellow students cheering for them, laughter mingling with the yells. They were dismissed from the stage and left the daïs to be consumed by their classmates sitting criss-cross applesauce by grade level on the gym floor. It took a while for the noise to die down.

I don’t know who thought any of that was a good idea, but it never happened again, and frankly, by the time the next pep rally rolled around, no one was even talking about the kissing contest anymore. It joined the ranks of other inconvenient memories, pushed down out of the way like the fraying polyester ribbons we collected from one school year to the next, wore every Friday during football season. They were the things we believed we didn’t have to mention, the tattered flags we pinned to our sleeves next to the shiny new ones, entire outfits made of fluttering blue and gold strips to show that we, yes, we had the most spirit, we were the most dedicated fans, we would do whatever it took to support our team.

Women’s Writers Wednesday 9/16/15

This week’s installment comes to us from Mary Lynn Ritch, who has written a response to Gina Tron’s memoir You’re Fine. (You might remember Tron from, among other places, this blog last month, when she herself had a guest post about Amy Jo Burns’ Cinderland in our WWW series.)

***

I met Gina a few years ago when we both had essays published about having similar awful high school experiences. Since then, she has become one of my closest friends whom I talk to almost every day. She is also, honestly, one of my favorite writers.

 

When I found out she was writing a book, I knew that I had to buy it because I knew it would be all of three things—manic, crazy, and ultimately hilarious. Her memoir, You’re Fine. published by Papercut Press, is by far one of her most impressive pieces of work about getting lost in the mental health system.

YOU'RE FINE.

 

In all honesty, I’ve read many memoirs by people whom I’ve never met who have stories that I am amazed by because I’ve lived a sheltered life. I know my silver spoon upbringing is the reason why my go-to books are dark memoirs. I usually choose books about hard drug addiction, murder, cults, sexual abuse for the fact that they all spotlight something I’ve never known. The stories never affect me personally other than my being amazed that the writer made it through the other side to live to tell their tale. That was, until I read You’re Fine.

 

The memoir starts off with Tron’s being dropped off at a mental health facility. Her conversation with the cab driver is hilarious and sad at the same time.

 

Throughout the book we learn Gina’s downward spiral into the abyss was triggered by many things, but ultimately due to a rape and the loss of her mother. In the process, she got addicted to cocaine and did a stint at a mental health ward. Tron’s views of the people in her life during that difficult time are without much judgment even though it’s obvious to the reader she was sometimes taken advantage of. Those parts were a bit hard for me to read, and there were times when I had to put the book down because I was so upset people treated her the way that they did.

 

I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the book. It was captivating from start to finish. My favorite parts included her hilarious interpretations of her crazy dreams as well as her always unfiltered and hysterical take on her surroundings. I absolutely loved this book while learning it’s hard to read a memoir written by someone you care about. This book is for anyone struggling with grief as much as it is for anyone who has survived rape and drug abuse. This book is for anyone needing to figure out what it means to be fine.

***

Mary Lynn Ritch

 

 

 

Mary Lynn Ritch is a writer based out of Atlanta, Georgia.  She has been published in VICE, Ladygunn, and various other publications.

 

 

 

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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.

Women Writers Wednesday 9/9/15

First, I must apologize for the hiatus. School started, I got a novel out the door, we’re still settling into the new house, and there’s been some travel. The hiatus ended up being rather longer than I anticipated. Hopefully we’re back on track now, and even more hopefully I’ll be producing more original content on the blog again this fall.

This week’s installment of Women Writers Wednesday comes to us from Jackie Parker, who has written a response to Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir The Light of the World.

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How does a woman survive when the light of her world suddenly is blotted out? Her husband, soul-mate, beloved father of her two boys, painter, chef extraordinare, her best friend, lover, and the carrier of her African DNA, dead, right before dinner, having bought the salmon, opened the frosty white wine.

Even though this is a memoir of loss and survival, it is a celebration of life. It tells the story of a marriage of depth and passion, friendship, and joy, a marriage of art, one that lasted fifteen years but felt to them like twenty-five. “So much struggle and joy.”

THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD cover

The author is the celebrated poet, one of our finest, Elizabeth Alexander, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the author of the beautiful “Praise Song for the Day,” delivered at the 2009 inauguration of President Barak Obama.

How can she bear to write this, I kept wondering, as I read, breathless, the beauty and loss unfolding on the very first pages. What gave her the courage to begin? It is so intimate. So present.

The answer is buried in the acknowledgement section at the end of the book, where the author thanks her publishers and editor at Grand Central: Gretchen Young, Jamie Raab, and Deb Futter, who “envisioned this book before I did, dared to ask for it…”

Ah, so it was their idea, I thought. That’s why she wrote it. And what a good thing for us to know, as women, as writers. We hear so much about the terrible aspects of the publishing business, but there are wonderful aspects as well, the women who encouraged Elizabeth Alexander to do this, write this, the support she was given in order to bring forth this brave book.

And, such a beautiful book. Written in sections, it has amazing recipes — for Ficre’s food was legendary — it describes meals, gives us the names of their many friends, as well as imaginary conversations, dreams, takes us to farflung parts of the world Eritrea where Ficre was born and his family still live, to France, Italy. Teaches us history, for the author is also a professor of African American Studies at Yale.

There are titles of loved books, artists. Favorite music. The description of the paintings Ficre did, the one he made to commemorate their first meeting containing an eye on a plate! And images of their children to be, spirits.

And there is the story of their meeting, their powerful love. Their family story, all of it an extended love story. Friends and family always present, gatherings around their large tables. The garden that Ficre loved. And flowers, always flowers. Wait till you read about The Plum Blossom!

The lines bite like poetry. No ideas but in things. To tell you the way the book begins is to spoil its impact. But we must know the end first, I think, because everything that comes after it is even richer. No matter how much beauty a life holds, it will end. If there is love, the end is tragic, Elizabeth Alexander teaches us, right from the start. Only beauty can redeem loss.

At the center of the book is Ficre, from Eritrea. Have you ever heard such words? Eritrea the tiny country in Africa. Ficre walked through its killing fields at sixteen, to escape, to live. How he made his way to the United States is a book in itself.

Ficre is a man who lights every corner of the world he inhabits with his beautiful being. The phrases he speaks, the food he makes, his gentleness and patience. His fathering. His husbanding! His clothing — the bright pink shirt. His painting studio.

The language of Elizabeth Alexander is precise and gorgeous. The meticulous attention to things, the things of this world, that is at the heart of poem-making animates every sentence.

To read The Light of the World is to be invited into lives that make you want to stand up and dance for joy, and weep for the journey that we humans must take.

One week after her husband’s death Elizabeth Alexander returned to teach her final class of the semester. She gives us the words with which she ended her lecture. They include this: “Art tries to capture that which we know leaves us, as we move in and out of each other’s lives…”

By the end of this book we know what is left. The sons, taller than their father had been. The wife, alive and able to feel, once again, the beauty of the world. The move to a new city.

And yet, days, weeks, months after finishing The Light of the World I felt Ficre, his living essence, as if I had known him in life. I mourned that he was no longer on the earth. What a gift Elizabeth Alexander has made for us. What a book!

***

Jackie Parker
Jackie Parker

Jackie Parker is the author of the recently published Our Lady of Infidelity: A Novel of Miracles (Arcade Publishing), available on Amazon, OUR LADY OF INFIDELITY coverthrough Booksamillion, and in bookstores throughout the US. She is an award-winning poet who leads workshops for writers and for people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities in community and health care settings in Los Angeles and throughout the country. She is also a teacher of meditation and occasional blogger for the Huff Post. Connect with her on Jackieparker.co.

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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.

Women Writers Wednesday 8/19/15

Sorry for the silence lately. School has resumed, and the last couple of weeks have been extremely busy because of it, in addition to some other pressing writing deadlines I’ve been trying to meet. But today the Women Writers Wednesday series resumes!

In this week’s post, Gina Tron takes a critical look at a memoir about a timely subject, sexual assault, in her guest post about Amy Jo Burns’ CinderlandContinue reading “Women Writers Wednesday 8/19/15”

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.

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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.

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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.

Women Writers Wednesday 1/7/15

The Women Writers Wednesday series is back after a long holiday hiatus! This week I’m featuring a review of Jung Chang’s memoir Wild Swans, presented by Niva Dorell Smith. Her short bio follows the review, as does information on how to see more of this series and how to be a part of it. I’m always interested in new voices!

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The next time you think or say, “This country sucks” (it’s okay, we’ve all felt this way at some point), please do yourself a favor and read Jung Chang’s debut memoir Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (Simon & Schuster, 1991). I guarantee you’ll feel differently when you finish it.

 

Wild Swans

 

In Wild Swans, Chang recalls the trajectory of her family and country from 1909 to 1978, expertly weaving the stories of three generations of Chang women with China’s historical struggle to redefine itself from feudal society to Communist super power. The result is part history lesson, part family soap opera, and entirely epic in both breadth and depth. I couldn’t put it down.

Chang begins the story with her fifteen-year-old grandmother Yu-Fang being given by her father to General Xue Zhi-Heng as a concubine. Seven years later, Yu has her one and only child, a daughter, Bao Quin, with whom she escapes from the General’s palace when Bao is a baby. Together, they live in exile for over a year until General Xue dies. His last words are that Yu be given her freedom. A short time later, Yu remarries Dr. Xia, a respected local doctor forty years her senior, who raises Bao as his own daughter and nurtures both her independent spirit and quest for knowledge.

During this time, China transitions from an empire to a republic/warlord society; the Japanese invade in the 1930s; a Communist-Kuomintang alliance leads to Japanese surrender in the mid-1940s; and a political struggle between the two victors results in the brutal Kuomintang-Communist Civil War. Chang’s mother, Bao, becomes a student leader, joins the Communist underground, and falls in love with Wang Yu, a Communist rebel leader. They marry right before the Communists prevail and General Mao Zedong establishes the People’s Republic of China.

Despite being a young couple in love, Wang Yu and Bao immediately butt heads on how to approach life, the Communist Party, and the raising of their own young family, including the author, Jung Chang, and her three siblings. Her father, Wang Yu, is a hardcore Communist who believes that being a Communist leader requires the strictest adherence to Party rules and values; in other words, no special treatment for himself or anyone in his family. Her mother, Bao, believes that a man in a position of authority should do everything he can to protect and provide for his family, even if it means making exceptions to Party rule and occasionally, secretly, questioning Party values. This conflict, which continues throughout their marriage, results in serious repercussions as both become senior officials in the Communist Party, and life becomes increasingly harsh under General Mao.

Chang writes with both emotional restraint and painstaking detail about growing up within the highest ranks of the Communist party, from walled communities to school beatings, to joining the Red Guards and watching her parents be denounced, tortured, and eventually sent to labor camps during the ten-year-long, ultra-violent Cultural Revolution. She chronicles the gradual transformation of her own psychological and emotional attachment to the almost mythical figure of General Mao, whom she loves, respects, and adores as a child and begins to question only as a young adult. Her father, though strict, earns the respect of even his fiercest enemies for remaining faithful to his principles, even when they eventually conflict with the radical Communist agenda. Her mother remains fiercely determined to fight for her loved ones, pulling every string and calling on every favor possible to protect not only her children, but also people who come to her for help.

Despite everything the family endures­­––starvation, torture, separation, forced labor, and prison camps––they manage to prevail and remain close. When Jung Chang leaves China in 1978 for London, one cannot help but share in her relief and joy at the miracle of freedom.

Whatever your thoughts about our government’s––or any government’s––being flawed, Jung Chang’s Wild Swans will illuminate unequivocally how Communist China was a thousand times worse. Families were torn apart by the regime, with neighbors turning on neighbors, children turning on parents, and parents turning on each other. Almost all symbols of Chinese history, including the majority of China’s vast art collection, were destroyed. Somewhere between fifteen and seventy million people died under Mao Zedong.

But the most painful aspect of Wild Swans is the psychological effect of living in constant fear. Jung describes a political and social environment that discourages any form of independent thinking, to the point where she no longer trusts her own thoughts. Breaking free of this psychological manipulation is not only extremely difficult but also dangerous. In Communist China your thoughts could get you arrested, tortured, and killed, and ruin your entire family for generations to come.

It is no wonder that this book is taught in colleges worldwide. Wild Swans is an unprecedented, intimate view of what it’s like to grow up in one of the most secretive and oppressive societies in the world. Only someone who experienced it first hand could have written it. Be grateful you did not.

***

Niva Dorell Smith is a filmmaker and freelance writer currently working on a memoir titled The History of Us. She writes regularly about grief and writing at www.ridingbitchblog.com. Follow her on Twitter @nivaladiva.

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.

In Praise of Love Notes

I was nineteen, almost twenty. We were on the glorious five-week hiatus our university called Winter Break. My college friends all hailed from different states, and everyone had gone home for vacation. And one of them wanted me to go out with him, so to make sure I thought about him while we were on opposite sides of the country, he wrote me a letter. He was an English major and I liked Shakespeare so the prose was filled with archaic forms of “you”: thou and thee and thy sprinkled everywhere like inky blossoms trying really hard.

 

We all wrote letters in those days, honest-to-goodness personal notes written on paper and folded into envelopes, with stamps and ink and licking the whole thing. Stamps and envelopes weren’t self-adhesive, the paper was real stationery, email was not a thing we’d even heard of, only drug dealers and doctors carried cell phones. We had long-distance phone cards, but it cost a lot more money to talk on the phone than it did to write a letter, so we wrote. The more romantically-minded of us even used sealing wax for fun, for special occasions, though often it had cracked and crumbled by the time it left the post office.

 

Letters are so much fun to receive. When I was a child, any piece of mail I might receive was a treasure. Birthday cards, letters from pen-pals, Highlights magazine. When I was in high school, the flood of brochures from colleges and universities that started in tenth grade filled a filing cabinet before I ever sat down to write my first application essay. In college, the mail was letters from friends at faraway schools and bills. Now it’s mostly junk mail and bills. Things that must go into the recycling or into the file, things that take up mental energy but give little of value in return. I miss correspondence and, frankly, wish I were better at it.

 

The one thing I always manage to accomplish, though, is love letters. Certainly for my husband, and a different sort for my children. If I’m going on a trip without them, I leave them letters on the kitchen table to find when I’m gone. If my husband has to go on a business trip, there’s always something tucked away in his suitcase, slipped in while he’s rushing around and not paying attention, a letter or card or heart-shaped stone waiting in the pocket of his dress shirt or rolled into his socks. Other than the holiday greetings we try to send out almost every year, Valentines and anniversary cards for my husband are the only cards I still give.

 

I love letters. I adore love letters. We need, in such a busy and disjointed world, those tactile reminders, those tangible artifacts of human interaction and loving connectedness. Write a love letter today, and someone can read it every tomorrow.

 

What is the most interesting love letter you’ve ever given or received?

Start-of-Term Make-Overs

It’s not so much a photograph as the black-and-white computer print-out of a photograph. And it’s not so much placed on the windowsill among the framed snapshots and portrait prints of my family as it is stapled haphazardly into an empty spot on the aging bulletin board. The bulletin board whose juvenile illustrated border has been falling down for years, whose navy blue felt backdrop is dusty and faded by the sun around the rectangles where items like this not-so-much-a-real-photograph have been thumbtacked and stapled up for years. So many years.

But this picture matters to me. It’s a picture of my birthday. Or more specifically, of a birthday party my Creative Writing class threw me one year––in 2009, I think––and I’m there in the middle, surrounded by my students and desks piled high with paper plates and napkins and homemade cookies and random snack foods from the grocery store that opens before school starts and a chocolate cake with a candle on it. The photo is grainy and hazy and even a little graffitied by my daughter, who drew ball point pink hearts around her favorite students, ones who used to babysit her and her little brother before they moved away to college.

I am dramatically rearranging and overhauling my classroom this year. It began with the acquisition of a Promethean Board which necessitated moving my computer (and thus desk) to the opposite side of the classroom, and that meant moving my bookshelves around, which snowballed into moving everything else around, too. In cleaning off the bookshelves I let go of a lot of things I don’t need or want anymore, and halfway through inservice week I spontaneously decided to redecorate my bulletin boards, which I hadn’t really done ever, choosing instead each semester only to add more stuff on top of what was already there. The fire marshal might have written me up, if he’d seen it.

By any logical estimation, this not-so-much-a-photograph, this piece of paper, curling at the staple-holed corners and ripped down one edge, ought to be tossed into the recycling bin. But I cannot let it go. This casual print-out of a digital photo one of the kids emailed to me is proof that during at least one point in my teaching career, I was able to make a meaningful connection with a room full of high schoolers that was powerful enough that they found a way to throw me a surprise party in my own classroom on my birthday, complete with decorations, food, a cake, and even handmade cards and a gift wrapped in lovely paper with a bow. I seem to recall that one of them posted to Facebook a short video of them singing to me, then one of them saying, “Now get your germs all over that cake!” and all of them laughing as I––also laughing––blew out the candle and then cut each of them a slice. Only half a class worth of work got done that day, but no one really cared about that.

I keep this picture around because it reminds me that I am capable of making these meaningful connections, that no matter how difficult it is for my students to relate to me as I get older and they seem to get younger, to get less interested in school and in learning for its own sake, to get more involved in the digital world we all now inhabit to the exclusion of real, tangible interactions with actual live humans…I was able to make an impression on them once, and I will find a way to do it again. I have to believe that, no matter how difficult it feels the first couple of weeks of the school year, no matter how many people ask to be transferred out of my English class because they’ve heard it’s hard, no matter how many of them stare up at me on the first day of school with faces that have shut down to mask the fear in their eyes. I’m so tired of not being known, so tired of not being given a chance.

I’ve been giving my classroom a make-over this week. The bulletin boards are now covered in a cheerful robin’s egg blue with white and silver scalloped borders. I’ve put up new artwork––some of the best of it by my AP Gothic Lit. students from last year. I’ve even included the book launch party poster for Finis. The walls have been freshly painted, all the surfaces have been dusted and Clorox-wiped. By the time classes start on Wednesday, the classroom will look like a brand-spanking-new place that is my own, rather than a room I inherited when I started teaching in it so many years ago, and even my desk will be cleaned off. I will appear to have it together.

In this process, I’ve been wanting to give myself a make-over, too. Wanting to walk into Macy’s and head right up to the Chanel or Dior counters and tell them to give me a new look. Preferably one with a shade of red lipstick I actually like, not too pink and not too orange. Something that won’t rub off on my teacup. Maybe find a new blouse or two to go with my fabulous skirt wardrobe.

In clearing out the physical detritus, I’ve been yearning for an emotional purge, too. I’ve had some setbacks with this school year already, and classes haven’t even started yet. Monday it felt like I was being slaughtered by a thousand bureaucratic and technical paper cuts. Here I am, already back at school and my summer’s work isn’t finished: I didn’t finish the rewrites of my novel, I didn’t finish clearing out the clutter in my house, I didn’t finish reading all the books I wanted to. My thinking about all of this is so entrenched in the negative, I have to consciously remind myself of all the good things that have happened: traveling with my family, successfully launching a new book and the excellent reviews it’s garnered so far, getting two of the rooms in my house and my wardrobe really purged and cleaned out. My god, I have to remind myself, the summer is only so long. How much did you expect to get done and still have a life? I’m too hard on myself.

David Foster Wallace’s brilliant commencement address to Kenyon in 2005 begins with an old joke about two young fish swimming around, when they encounter an older fish who says to them, “Good morning, boys. How’s the water?” After the older fish leaves, one of the younger fish asks his friend, “What the hell is water?” Wallace’s point is that we sometimes cling to our natural default setting of disappointment in the tedious fulcrum of mediocrity upon which so much of daily adult life turns; in this self-indulgent laziness, we sometimes forget to appreciate the value of our own experiences among other human beings. In short, we focus on the negative of what we know we don’t have, instead of recognizing the potential beauty in what we do not yet know about what we are going to have. Wallace’s speech is one of the most impactful and glorious elucidations of the Human Condition I’ve ever heard, made even more poignant by the fact that he, just a few years later, ended his own life. I share this speech with my students every May, just before the school year ends. Yet as often as I’ve heard it, I still have trouble, sometimes, remembering its wisdom.

My classroom is looking great so far. So here is my own personal start-of-term make-over: it’s going to be okay. Look, I’m getting writing done this very morning. After my writing date, I’ll head over to Macy’s and get some new lipstick. Then I’ll go home and attack one pile of paperwork and finish my summer reading, and then take my kids to a birthday party. My students are going to be marvelous and smart and kind and find something about my classes interesting. It’s all going to be okay.

I just have to keep reminding myself, This is water, this is water, this is water…