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.

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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.

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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.

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Women Writers Wednesday 10/7/15

The topic came up in one of my conversations today about the underrepresentation of protagonists of color in the YA literature being published here in the west. You may debate this all you like, if you want to. I know where I stand, and so I’m happy to feature this response by Iqra Asad to Na’ima B. Robert’s She Wore Red Trainers.

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Keeping It Real: A Muslim Girl’s Reaction to She Wore Red Trainers

SHE WORE RED TRAINERS cover

Growing up reading classics, Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, I never knew until my mid-teens that mainstream books in English featuring Muslim characters even existed. Of course, I knew about the angsty South Asian novel with the usual conflict of East versus West. In my opinion, those books, featuring characters that either live Western lives in an Eastern setting, or a Hollywood plot with Pakistani setbacks, were in the same line as photographers who only show the “starving Pakistani beggar” pictures in their portfolio. I mean to say that they only show to the global audience what that audience expects to see. Not to say that the starving beggars of Pakistan don’t have a story that deserves to be told, but National Geographic, Reader’s Digest and other leading publications are already doing that. What about privileged, middle-class, educated me who lives a life outside the “angsty Pakistani novel” experience? I like what the Indian author Uma Krishnaswami said about Kipling still being considered representative of the West’s perspective of life in India. Similarly, these novels by Muslim authors with Muslim characters, while entertaining and thought-provoking to read, are not as relevant to me as my more recent discoveries in the world of Muslim novels.

Those discoveries are the work of some groundbreaking female Muslim authors. I would like to talk about one of them today. Na’ima B. Robert entered the publishing world with From My Sisters’ Lips, an autobiographical account with the narratives of some other Muslim women included. She founded SISTERS Magazine, the magazine for fabulous Muslim women. She went on to write Muslim children’s fiction and YA, the latest of which is She Wore Red Trainers, from Kube Publishing. Honestly speaking, I managed to get it because it was only $1.99 in the iBooks and Kindle stores (but then I got the full-price paperback delivered to my Pakistani residence via Fabingo). The reading experience for me was, however, priceless. While she’s not Pakistani (she is, in fact, part Zulu and part Scottish), her stories of Muslim experiences in a British backdrop appeal to me. (As for my particular kind of Muslim experience in a Pakistani backdrop, you know what they say to do if you don’t find the book you want to read. I’m working on that.)

I am aware that not every reader of She Wore Red Trainers walks away with the same fondness for it that I have. Every reader brings their own personal viewpoint with them to the reading experience, and mine was that of a twentysomething-but-still-reading-YA girl thrilled to read a woman writer writing about Muslim teens.

How romantic is this “YA romance”?

The story is boy-meets-girl and happily-ever-after, but there’s a lot of “looking away so as not to stare immodestly” and “keeping away because premarital relationships are not Islamic” in the book. As one Goodreads review stated, it doesn’t feature the frequent and in-depth personal interaction between the hero and heroine as most romances do. However, in my opinion I think that is keeping it real as far as the context is concerned. As a girl who had to shake her head numerous times when asked by her American health care provider whether she had had any sexual partner (No? Really? Not ever? OK, then), I understood the “attracted from a distance” theme of the book. To answer the question, it’s as clean as clean gets. Sterile, even.

Also, it’s not really categorized by Amazon as a romance. It’s categorized under “family”. That should clear things up for you. However, to hook the youthful target readership, “halal romance” (“halal” being “Islamically permissible”) is the label to use. Trust me, we veiled Muslim girls really get a kick out of stuff like this. I think our main occupation really is “dreaming of marriage land.” There, I said it. People who know me as the reserved veiled bookworm can officially faint with shock now.

Who should read this book?

If the blurb appeals to you, read it. If you’re curious, read it. If you want to support this particular niche, I insist you buy it.

A comment about the ending

The ending is very fairytale and a tad unrealistic, but I accepted it, being an enthusiastic reader.

Is it a valuable contribution to the women writers’ narrative?

Yes, of course! As a female reader I want to read women writers writing about women, men, teens and toddlers going through all situations of this world. YA has a special place in my heart and seeing women writers thrive while writing YA really gives me a boost, both as a reader and as a writer.

Have you read it? Would you like to read it? Does this article remind you of a book you’d like to mention? Do share in the comments.

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Iqra Asad is an American Pakistani, fresh out of dental school and writing her way forward in life. She blogs at http://iqrawrites.com/ and tweets as @iqrawrites.

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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 9/23/15

You might remember Jennifer Waldo’s name from earlier in this series, where she guest posted, quite eloquently, about the Divergent series and then the Pure series. She has one more YA book response in store for us, this time regarding Katie McGarry’s Pushing the Limits.

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PUSHING THE LIMITS

 

I have to admit, I was embarrassed to buy this book because the title and the cover looked so…cheesy.  But my own YA novel “pushes limits” on things like sex and I wanted to see what was out there in the market.

Honestly! I bought this for research…and then I fell in love with it. Continue reading “Women Writers Wednesday 9/23/15”

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.)

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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.

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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!

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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”

FINIS. One-Year Bookiversary!

Today is the one-year anniversary of the launch of Finis., and I want to take the time to thank everyone who has bought and/or read it. And especially thank you to those who have written reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and on their blogs!

royalty-free image from shutterstock.com

I’m hoping for a greater reach for this story over the next year, and one way Finis. can get out of its echo chamber is by having more reader reviews. Did you know an ebook won’t get into search results if it doesn’t have at least fifty reviews on Amazon? That’s right, 50. That’s a lot, and while the reviews we’ve gotten so far have been really good — and we love and appreciate that! — we haven’t reached fifty yet, not by a long shot. Have you read the story yet? Will you please consider (if you haven’t done so already) writing a review for it on Amazon and Goodreads? You will have my undying appreciation. And do spread the word!

cover design by Lauren Volness
cover design by Lauren Volness

For those of you who haven’t seen this story yet, here is an excerpt, the first three chapters. If you like what you see here, I hope you’ll click on one of the following links to buy it. You can get Finis. from Amazon, of course, but also anywhere else ebooks are available, including Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Scribd, iBooks, Smashwords, Blio, Oyster Books, and all of Amazon’s and Apple’s markets in other countries.

Thanks again for your support! Watch this space for more news later on this lovely little story, and while you’re there, go on and give that page a Like (and be sure to turn on the notifications so you’ll actually see the posts; there aren’t many).

Now, without further ado, your excerpt:

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1

Elsa’s parents and sister have become meaner than usual, and her cat, Jonas, resents her. She has a nagging concern he wants to eat her.

“He bit me again this morning––I woke up to find half the toes on my left foot in his mouth! I kicked him away but he just came back, all fangs and hissing, till I locked him in the coat closet.”

But that’s only the beginning, Elsa tries to explain to her cousin Gerard. She has to speak in short bursts: he’s conducting his water exercises, his head bobbing in and out of the water in orderly arcs. She knew she’d be interrupting his routine, but this morning’s episode has brought things to a head. On her way to work, anxiety commandeered her every thought and movement. Before she could catch her breath, she found herself tearing through Gerard’s garden gate and rushing to his salt-water pool.

“Oh, Elsa,” he says, his feet spiraling around a large stalk of kelp just below the water’s surface. He runs a watery hand across his spiky brown hair, and brine curls down his back. “What are you going to do?”

“What’s even worse, my landlord left another threat-of-eviction notice today.” She sets her briefcase down near a baby potted corpse flower and ventures closer to the pool. “I’ve done nothing wrong. My rent is always on time. I’m a quiet, orderly tenant. I thought getting a cat would mollify the building association, but unless I become a cat, I don’t think it’ll help.”

Gerard dunks, flips neatly into a ball, and spins back up; he swims to where she stands at the edge of the pool and rises. “Have you had any hints of your self?” He looks at her carefully, scrutinizing, and she wants to shrink into the empty void of mediocrity. Still, his voice is tender. “Anything at all?”

“No,” she murmurs, mesmerized by the ripples his body makes, the way the water slaps against the side of the pool and then laps backward over itself, folding the brine under to dissolve in a never-ending cycle of thrash and renewal.

“I’m not sure I approve of where you’re living, anyway. Those nasty gangs¾I read about them in the newspaper. Packs attacking Plain Ones right and left, even children.”

“I saw that, too. They usually go for adults, though¾people who ought to have blossomed by now.” Her shame for the disgrace she’s caused her family burns on her face.

Gerard smiles. “Come in for a swim. You’ll feel better.” He shoots backward through the water, darkened spiny ridges flashing on his skin.

She almost wants to but imagines how painful it would be. “I can’t,” she says, then makes an excuse. “Work.”

“Of course. The monster.”

“I’ve never been a swimmer, anyway.” Even standing for too long in the shower makes her skin feel prickly and sore; she usually just soaps up before turning the water on and then washes her hair in the sink. “I think I’m allergic to water.”

He laughs. “Off you go, then. See you later––” His words bubble as he dives backward.

Elsa trudges out the gate, hardly even waving back at the friendly centaur trimming his hedges next door.

2

Elsa hears the snarling from all the way downstairs and pushes the six button again, as if that would make the elevator go any faster. She doesn’t want to be late. As the doors finally, slowly open, she rushes out, bumping her shoulder on one of them. An accountant from the third floor, his mottled brown and gray hair in disarray, crashes into her as he flies toward the exit.

“I’m so sorry,” she says, helping him collect his fallen papers. Quietly she asks, “Are you all right?”

He pushes his round, dark-rimmed glasses farther up his beaky nose. “Those two new secretaries missed a staff meeting last night.”

He doesn’t have to say any more about the displeasure of the monster behind the big oak desk.

Elsa adjusts the neat hair clip she always wears and steps cautiously into the sixth floor receiving area, unwilling to navigate the labyrinth of cubicles to her own workstation next to the monster’s room. She can see fresh piles of beige folders on her desk, but horrible sounds are coming from the boss’ office. She realizes with chagrin her briefcase is still on Gerard’s patio and panics, turns quickly around and walks back out to the elevator bank. Artwork on the walls and a large aquarium filled with colorful fish and other placid creatures calm her. One young man from her office, a new hire, is staring mindlessly at a large, abstract photograph as if trying to lose himself in it. Another employee rushes out to stare at a particularly soothing canvas of gray paint.

She presses her fingertips to the front of the aquarium and several fish swim up to her. The larger ones seem to smile; the smaller ones seem to be trying to suck her fingertips, through the glass. Watching the kelp and anemone and angelfish tranquilizes Elsa’s nerves enough for her to go back inside. She turns around.

Lois, the switchboard operator, quietly beckons her. Thick glasses usually cover her pretty orange eyes, but today the spectacles sit atop her head, holding back a curly mane of dark copper hair that looks mussed, as if from dodging projectiles. She doesn’t look frightened, though, despite the palpable fear among the rest of the staff. Elsa hurries over.

“Are the secretaries going to be fired?” she asks. Three empty coffee cups clutter Lois’ desk, and dirt smudges highlight a dent in the tan wall behind it. The heavy wooden door to the monster’s interior office shakes suddenly as if something the size of a potted tree has just been thrown at it.

“Already done. The question now is whether they’ll have to be carried out.”

They watch for several tense minutes as the growling and yelling and sounds of people running around and things being thrown continue to distract everyone from working.

Suddenly a shriek from the interior chamber makes Elsa cringe. She recognizes the voice of that secretary––another Plain One, she’s sure, although the woman tried to keep it a secret. But Elsa knew, could see it in the nervous way the woman watched other people interact, in the dejected slump of her shoulders when she thought no one was looking at her.

Elsa debated whether to approach her, whether she would welcome sympathetic company.

Or perhaps they would each make the other more of a pariah, since no one liked it when underdogs banded together. Maybe the secretary would be angry and offended, would keep trying to hide who she wasn’t.

Or maybe Elsa was wrong about her and would be rebuffed, her position as outcast further solidified.

She finally decided it was easier not to try to be understood.

There’s another crash. It sounds like her inner debate is quickly becoming irrelevant.

A tap on Elsa’s shoulder makes her jump. Gerard is standing there, holding out her briefcase.

“Elsa, my dear, you need someone to look after you,” he says.

“No, I don’t,” she mutters.

“Who are you?” Lois purrs appreciatively, shaking his webbed hand.

“My cousin Gerard,” Elsa says. She holds up the briefcase, annoyed with herself for having forgotten it. “Thanks for bringing this.” Grudgingly she adds, “You’ve saved my hide.”

The monster’s door opens, and one secretary¾not the one who piqued Elsa’s curiosity¾stumbles quickly out, red hair up like a coxcomb. Her sleeve is gashed open. She points sloppily toward his office and mumbles, “Kelly…ambulance.”

There’s a roar, and Elsa clutches her briefcase to her chest. They can see the horns and hairy shoulders. The boss is nearly seven feet tall.

Lois sighs and picks up the phone on her desk. “I hope he’s paid up on the workers’ comp policy,” she says.

“That supervisor of yours is a nasty customer,” Gerard says evenly. “Somewhere in Crete a maze is missing its pet.”

Elsa knows she ought to try to find a new job. The monster has too much of a temper, and this sort of thing is happening more often.

3

It’s Elsa’s mother’s birthday, and she’s been summoned to dinner at her parents’ house, but just being around her family puts Elsa’s stomach in knots. After a Salade Niçoise she couldn’t even choke down, her mother announces that Elsa’s father has bought her a swimming pool for her birthday; they’ll break ground within two weeks. Everyone else is excited. When Elsa doesn’t muster the same enthusiasm as the rest of the family, her father asks what her problem is.

“Dad, you know I can’t swim¾”

“No, you won’t swim,” he grouses. “There’s a difference.”

This is technically true. Elsa chooses not to submerge herself in vats of acid, too.

“I should’ve just thrown you into the water when you were little instead of listening to you whine.” He harrumphs, a gargoyle hunkering over his dinner. He and Elsa recall her traumatic first experience with a swimming pool in very different ways. “Faced with sink or swim, I’ll bet you’d have figured out a way to dog paddle.”

Elsa stares at her plate, pushes the food around on it. She nibbles a little at the bacon wrapping the shrimp and has eaten half her wheat roll, but nothing tastes good.

Her sister Joan is there with her husband Neil and their eight-month-old son, Stuart. The evening continues in its typical way: Joan and Neil and Stuart are the stars with their gaiety and antics; Elsa greatly vexes her mother (Why doesn’t she ever go out? Why doesn’t she ever bring friends over at the holidays? Is she ever going to get married?), which makes her father grumble, which makes Joan suggest Elsa do something different with her hair or her clothes or go out more or do something, which makes Neil pay more attention to Stuart, which makes Elsa’s mother say how much she loves grandchildren and would like to have more someday while glaring at her younger daughter.

“Sure, Mother, I’ll have some grandchildren for you. Right after I sprout two more legs and some wings and become a butterfly.”

Everyone becomes quiet then, the family’s frustrated dance around the subject of Elsa’s Plainness stuttering to a halt. Her mother looks wistful, as if she hopes such a transformation might one day come to pass and doesn’t understand why it hasn’t.

Elsa surveys them all: her parents, prominent figures in society, their stateliness exuding from every pore even in the privacy of their home; Neil with his raven coloring; Stuart, soft fuzzy hair on his velvet scalp, just like Joan had when she was young. And then Joan. Tall, graceful, even her freckles a lovely blanket over golden skin. Like her mother, a perfect giraffe.

“Elsa, I have the number of a doctor I want you to call,” her mother says. “One of my friends suggested him.”

“I’ve been to see doctors before,” Elsa reminds her. They examined every inch of her, inside and out, subjected her to the most embarrassing questions ever, but could find no evidence of her animal affinity.

The last doctor, a specialist, recommended shock therapy as a way to bring out Elsa’s true nature. “Your whole life will improve once we figure out what you’ve got hiding away inside of you,” he said, his small black eyes like beads in his ruddy face. “No one will question your intelligence or competence ever again.” He grinned at her with thin lips. “You might even find a boyfriend finally.” At Elsa’s surprised look, he shrugged. “Your dad told me you can’t even get a date. No worries, though. Once we figure out what you are, the whole world will see you in a more favorable light.” He cleared his throat and pinched his prescription pad, began scrawling notes. “I recommend eight to ten sessions¾”

“Absolutely not!” Elsa said, tugging the medical gown tighter around herself. She wouldn’t endure some medievally-inspired torture just so her parents could feel better about their unusual kid.

The doctor cast her an indignant look. “Has anything else worked yet? Without an evident affinity, you’re only half your self.”

Elsa leveled an angry look at him that was more fear than backbone. “I’m not interested in shock therapy, thanks.”

“Fine,” the doctor replied coolly. “Enjoy being a Plain One.” Then he left the exam room, closing the door behind him with a little more force than was strictly necessary. Elsa put her clothes back on and left as quickly as she could. Her parents were annoyed with her for that, too.

“He was one of the best, Elsa,” her father said. “I had to pull some strings to get you that appointment. He’s usually booked seven months in advance.”

Elsa still can’t decide whether she appreciates her father’s efforts, or if he simply wanted to reassure himself it wasn’t his fault she’s so deficient. Either way, she knows she isn’t going back.

Dinner ends with a hedonistic dessert to which Joan politely demurs. “Watching my figure,” she says, smiling. As if Joan has to worry about that¾she grazes all day and never puts on an ounce. Elsa takes a bite of the mousse cake and finds it delicious. Suddenly she’s hungry, but she hasn’t eaten three bites before Joan stops her. “Seriously? That’ll go straight to your hips.”

Later, when Elsa gathers her purse and keys to go home, she glances back at everyone chatting away and realizes no one is noticing her. The family room––a concoction of Stuart’s toys and Joan’s knitting bag and a book Neil brought over for her father to read––is filled with the presence of Joan’s family. Nothing of Elsa’s anywhere, except for the plain white envelope on the small table by the door. It contains a check, a small monthly supplement because Elsa’s income hasn’t kept pace with the rising cost of living, so that she can have an apartment of her own.

Nights like this, Elsa just knows her parents wish they’d stopped with the first child.

***

Download Finis. to find out how Elsa tries to overcome her Plainness and what roles Gerard and Lois play in her life.

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