Women Writers Wednesday 7/1/15

You’ve heard from Christa Forster on this blog before: during National Poetry Month she contributes to the Poem-A-Day series (in 2014 and 2015), and she’s done a WWW review before too.

Today she gives us a review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a book people seem to either love or hate (but mostly love) from an author who makes a walloping impression. I read Tartt’s The Secret History when I was in college and was profoundly affected. I read it many years later when I was teaching and was impressed it held up. It remains to this day one of my favorite novels. (Plus I can empathize with someone who takes a decade to write a book…)



Donna Tartt has written one of the first great American novels of the 21st century: The Goldfinch. Her aptly-named main character — Theo Decker — alludes to the Nietzschean idea that not only is God dead, not only have we killed him, but we’ve wasted him, blown him away, stuffed any remaining shreds of sacredness into a padded bubble mailer and not even noticed when someone switched out our only miracle while we were zonked on drugs or booze or gambling or relationships or Facebook or whatever has enthralled us. With The Goldfinch, Tartt holds up a mirror to nature that is so cracked it is hard to keep looking: it’s especially alarming, because we don’t want to believe that we’ve doomed ourselves to the extent that we have.




It is not a novel about climate change. It’s a novel about a boy who loses everything. Near the story’s end, Theo admits that “Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean that we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.” The paradoxical tone of the novel — this bleak open-heartedness — divides people into two distinct groups: those who love it and those who cannot tolerate it. Lukewarm reports from people who “sorta liked” The Goldfinch are hard to find, maybe because the novel, at 771 pages, requires a hearty investment of time. Readers either finish the book and love it, or they don’t immediately love it and therefore don’t finish it.


The basic plot is this: Theo Decker’s life is devastated early on by a bomb attack on an art museum, wherein he and his mother seek shelter from a rainstorm and kill time before a scheduled conference with Theo’s school principal. The explosion suggests the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and although Theo walks away from the catastrophe physically unscathed, his soul forever after suffers from what the explosion steals from him (his mother, his sense that the world is an okay place). In addition to leaving with all his limbs, he also escapes the wreck with “The Goldfinch,” a small painting by the obscure Dutch master, Carel Fabritius. Unsure of why he’s taken the painting (described alluringly by Tartt), he frets about how to return it, taking so much time that he fears what will happen if he does return it. So he avoids returning it, but he cannot unknow that he has not returned it; thereby, he unwittingly commits one of the great art heists of the century, a fact which haunts him epically, but not enough to motivate him to return the painting. Tartt uses Fabritius’ painting as a MacGuffin to move the plot along and to complicate the conflict in the plot. However, as with all great stories, the characters keep the reader turning the pages. Along with Theo, an ensemble of major characters dominate the scene: Boris (Theo’s hardcore best friend, son of a Russian mobster); Theo’s duplicitous, rattled father and his skeezy girlfriend, Xandra; the blueblood, seemingly inbred Upper East Side Barbour family; the evil villain Lucius Reeve; the uber-mensch Hobie and his niece, the ethereal Pippa.


Certainly, The Goldfinch can be categorized as a dark novel, but also one that is certainly steeped in light. Anyone whose life has been touched by addiction — her own or someone’s close to hers —  will be amazed at Tartt’s knowledge of the subject matter. The main characters in this book abuse a LOT of illegal substances. One might even wonder if the twelve-year radio silence between the publications of The LIttle Friend and The Goldfinch wasn’t caused by Tartt’s own journey through a dark night of the soul. Regardless, Tartt has turned whatever baggage she’s carrying into a true treasure with The Goldfinch. This is literary fiction of the highest order (remember, it won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, the highest accolade a work of fiction can receive in America), which means that the characters are complex, conflicted, and psychologically profound; the settings (New York and Las Vegas) are saturated with symbolism; the atmosphere and mood are dense and tense, rendered with exquisitely-tuned concrete, sensory detail. As all classics are, Tartt’s The Goldfinch is a must-read for any writer — aspiring or seasoned — to learn or remember how and why the objective correlative matters, why and when the first-person/past tense point of view works best, what a MacGuffin is and how it advances a story’s plot.


Even a potential design-flaw, like the overabundance of times that Tartt’s characters wipe their foreheads with the backs of their hands, is absorbed by the gratifying experience of finishing the novel and the memory one has of the story and of reading the story. And perhaps, for those readers who persevere long and read closely enough to notice it, this ubiquitous brow-wiping is another example of the objective correlative at work in this novel:  Whew! Made it through the wreck this time. Hopefully, the next generation, and the next, will make it through, too.


Christa Forster: Writer, Teacher, Performer whose goal is to make life more meaningful for herself and others through Education and Art. Follow her on Twitter @xtaforster.


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 6/24/15

Instead of a review this week, I want to take a minute to talk more about this series and the reason it was started.

There’s been a lot of press in the last year or so about gender bias in the publishing industry. Many people have observed that it’s hard to get traditionally published if you’re a woman, especially if you’re also writing about women. With the exception of the romance genre, literature is still, somehow, “a man’s world.” And all this despite the oft-repeated statistic that most book buyers (and book clubbers) are women. I’d heard and read all these things over and over again, but for some reason, it wasn’t entirely resonating with me.

Why? I go to conferences, and more than half the agents at every conference I go to are women. In the writing industry seminars and classes I take––whether in town or at a conference––at least half (sometimes far more) of the writers around me are women. I read books by women (though not exclusively). I read books about women (though not exclusively). There’s no shortage of women on my bookshelf and in my recommended reads on Amazon.

But wrapped up in my own experiences, I wasn’t seeing the bigger picture.

The more I investigated this topic, in talking to other authors I know, in reading articles about it online, in seeking out multiple perspectives on this issue on social media, the more I began to see that there really is a problem. It’s not just about the writing industry, of course: it’s about our society more broadly. I’ll try not to be too much of a SJW here, but things like gender bias, discrimination, rape culture, and hating on women are some of the most insidious cancers in our culture. They’re particularly damaging not just because they are bad in and of themselves, but because in our culture, we have a belief that everything we do is infused with inalienable rights, with freedoms to be and say and do whatever we want. Sometimes, though, this crosses a line, as anyone who has ever paid attention to free speech debates surely knows.


Paul Downs Colaizzo said of his play Really Really that its genesis was in part the current youth’s hook-up culture and in part the 2006 Duke lacrosse team rape scandal. He cited some interesting points about American culture in a talkback after a Black Lab Theatre performance of it, directed by Jordan Jaffe, here in Houston last spring. When asked the question, “What do you want most for your children?” the WWII generation wanted their children to grow up to be good citizens. Those children, when grown, when asked the same, wanted their children to be happy. Those happy children? They grew up to tell their own kids they could be whatever they wanted to be.

Does any of this sound familiar? It’s a charming progression. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong with it. But then when a generation of people are raised thinking they can be or do whatever they want…

We get––among other things, some of which are good––our current state of rape culture and Internet trolldom.


What is my point here? It may seem like things are hunky-dory on the surface because we have a lot of personal freedoms (especially if we’re white men). But that’s not the whole picture. Unless you’ve been living in a cave the last couple of months you know that a bunch of the evil -isms of the Human Condition are alive and unfortunately well in our great nation. “Something rotten in the state of Denmark” doesn’t even begin to cover the mess we’re in. I’ll digress too much if I try to list it all here.

Gender bias is just one part of this.

We have to pay attention to it.

The Women Writers Wednesday series on this blog was begun in an attempt to help rectify just one part of this tangled problem.

In this series, female authors share their views on books by other female authors. The idea was to highlight women’s contributions, now and before, to literature. The books are chosen by the reviewers/responders; I don’t curate the titles in general. Want to know something interesting? Out of nearly two dozen reviews/responses we’ve had in this series since November, all but four have been about books written about women––and those four were about both women and men.

So the books are out there. And they’re good. They’re inspiring people. So what’s the problem?

These books aren’t being recognized. And I don’t mean just the books in the WWW series. I mean books by women about women, in general. Check out these chilling pie charts by author Nicola Griffith:


This chart shows the winners of the Pulitzer Prize since 2000.
This chart shows the winners of the Pulitzer Prize since 2000.




This chart shows the National Book Award winners since 2000.
This chart shows the National Book Award winners since 2000.


(You can see Ms. Griffith’s full blog post with several more pie charts and a discussion on this subject by clicking here.)

I don’t know where the problem begins, but I don’t think it’s a lack of women writing, or even of women writing well. I also don’t know what the solution is, but I am very sure nothing will get solved if people aren’t talking about it. And preferably in constructive ways. (You know, the kind that don’t involve simply dismissing the issue or attacking women verbally in the public sphere.)

Ms. Griffith has also posted a call to action: to help acquire more data. More information, after all, will help everyone to see the problem and its potential solutions more clearly.

Take a look. Get involved if you can. Start with literature, branch out to interpersonal relations. Make the world better.



Women Writers Wednesday 6/17/15

This week’s response is to one of my childhood favorites, Anne of Green Gables. I could tell you stories of how that book mattered to me when I was in junior high (now called middle school), but they would seem utterly banal next to this lovely response from J.G. Lucas.


Anne of Green Gables and Me

I have no place reviewing Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery. It is wonderful. If you haven’t read it, you should. The book has been around for 106 years and has sold millions of copies. There is nothing I could write about its contents that hasn’t been written before.

That said, the beauty of writing or art of any kind, is the way it transforms when experienced by each person. Anne changed and continues to change me, and I change her by the way I experience her.

My first exposure to the Anne series was at my friend Diane’s house. I was eleven, and I saw the whole set on her shelf in a room that I remember being very yellow. The covers were girly and scripty, and they did not appeal to me at all. Anne in those covers always stood (or sat) looking wistfully into the distance. She was nothing like my fictional heroines, Meg from A Wrinkle in Time, Lucy and Jill from Narnia, or Jo from Little Women. Diane offered to loan the books to me, and I declined (possibly disdainfully).

Thirteen years later, I was working in a large university library, and I found Anne of Green Gables alone, apart from the rest of the series. This time, the cover was leather, the pages were thick parchment, and the book smelled and felt amazing.


Is there any more comforting smell than old book? I checked it out to myself. The next day I packed it in my bag of things I needed to take to the hospital, where I would sit in the waiting room while my husband had a simple biopsy.

Anne was the only one with me that day as the routine two-hour operation turned into an eight-hour ordeal. Using L.M. Montgomery’s words, Anne told me about her life, her beautiful island, her bright imagination, and the people who grew to love her. She and I watched the clock. At first, she distracted me with her story. As the hours stretched, she comforted me.

I wish I could have kept that book, but I didn’t need it. The binding and perfume of the paper caught my attention, but the words stole my heart. Given Anne’s age and how beloved she is, her words are everywhere. I discovered the Gutenberg Book Project a couple of years later when I was an angry, drifting young widow working as a secretary in a drafty office. There was more time than work to do. I looked like I was busy on the computer, but I was reading Anne. And again, she helped. She reminded me that spring would come, that there were beautiful things in the world, and that you could find happiness and friendship even during grief.

Later still, I moved away from my home and started over. And I read Anne. This time, she told me about being brave and learning to trust. I was so fortunate to find love again and to start a family again. And I read Anne. Over the years, I can’t count the number of times I’ve read Anne. I read her at least twice a year, but as often as once a month. When I want to be intrigued, frightened or entertained, I try a new book. When my soul needs a hand to hold, I read Anne. I smile, sigh, and cry every time. My heart swells every time Marilla realizes she loves Anne. I shiver every time Matthew gives her the brown gloria dress. At the end, I cry and am proud of Anne, every time.

There are accounts that Anne’s creator, Lucy Maud Montgomery, was incredibly unhappy, especially later in life, and that she wrote to escape her harsh existence. As a writer, I don’t really believe that. Instead, I believe her harsh existence happened in between the times when she was writing. Her characters whispered to her, and she wrote them. She wrote Anne almost until the end. I know there were people who loved Anne like me and who sent L.M. Montgomery letters thanking her for her books. I like to think those letters helped her. Because of Anne, she is immortal, and her immortality is sweet, touching, beautiful and loving. I hope she knows that and is happy.


J.G. Lucas is a writer living in Florida with her family and a variety of cats. Her debut novel, Bright Aster, is available through Amazon U.S.  and Amazon U.K. She blogs here and here.


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 6/10/15

This week’s WWW review comes to us from Jennifer Waldo, who reviewed the Divergent series by Veronica Roth here back in January. This time she’s writing about another YA series, the Pure books by Julianna Baggott.




Pure by Julianna Baggott follows several characters but the main heart of the story belongs to Pressia, a young girl turning sixteen in a world that’s been obliterated by an atomic bomb ten years prior.


PURE by Julianna Baggott


Everyone on the outside of a Dome which served as protection for the “pures” are considered “wretches” and have some kind of fusing. In Pressia’s case, one hand has been covered by the doll’s head that she was holding at the time of the blast. Another character is fused with birds that are still alive and implanted on his back. Other characters are fused with other people like Siamese twins. It’s grotesque, and part of Pressia’s arc is to figure out whether she can accept herself for who she is or if she is better off finding a “cure” for her deformity. When a pure escapes from the Dome on a mission to find his mother, Pressia saves his life and the two of them start a journey discovering the truth about the Dome, the outside world, what happened, their families. As in The Wizard of Oz, they collect newcomers along the way who become integral to the overall story.

Pure (followed by Book 2 Fuse and Book 3 Burn) is an excellent series that offers a true sci-fi world, variety of character, and some more complicated writing than the young heroine in a dystopian/apocalyptic society stories we have seen in other series such as The Hunger Games, Divergent, Legend, Matched… Baggott’s use of changing POV within a selection of main characters but not ALL the characters offers the reader an opportunity to at times be complicit in wrongdoing, something not seen in these other series. I found myself uncomfortable with at least one of the main characters who kept disappointing my expectation of becoming the hero and rising above external manipulation. It was enlightening to see/read/experience characters from a direct POV who ultimately failed in their character arc. It was expertly handled by Baggott.

I highly recommend it. I’m not sure it came to a full resolution at the end of Burn, but endings are always hard, and in such a rich and complex story, I am not sure what I would have done differently.

In all, I’m not sure I understand why it hasn’t done as well as the previously mentioned series like The Hunger Games.  When I wanted to purchase Pure, I had to order it online; no store carried it.  I wonder if it’s because the love story is not as central as it is in the other series, though it’s certainly there.  It’s a more difficult read and I didn’t get caught up in the same passion and urgency to continue reading the way I did with the other series.  However, I think it’s a testament to its writing and characters that it couldn’t be treated as pulp.  I can see how it may have benefited from more action and a different style of description for the dramatic conflict scenes.  As a writer, it’s an interesting question.  Thoughts always welcome!




Jennifer Waldo has been writing and directing for film and video for the last ten years, including the short video SISTERS now in post production. A lifelong writer and photographer, Jennifer began her career working in the documentary/educational film industry of her hometown, Washington, DC.  She graduated from the Quaker school Sidwell Friends and went on to earn her Bachelor of Arts with honors in English at Oberlin College. Wanting to hone her skills as a filmmaker, Jennifer spent three years earning her MFA in Film Production at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts where she won the Edward Small Directing Scholarship for her existentialist film ROOM 119 (2001) and wrote and directed her 35mm USC graduate thesis SEARCHING FOR ANGELS (2006).  After graduating USC in the spring of 2004, Jennifer’s thesis film screened at the Director’s Guild in Los Angeles as part of the April 2006 First Look Festival. Working in Houston, Texas, over the last few years, Jennifer completed a set of twelve educational videos for a local Montessori School and EVERYTHING BEGINS AT B.I.R.T.H. (2007) about non-profit organization BIRTH founded by midwives. Jennifer’s romantic comedy screenplay HONEYMOON ADVENTURERS was selected as a “Screwball Comedy” Finalist in the Broad Humor Screenplay Contest in July 2006 and her feature-length script adaptation of SEARCHING FOR ANGELS was a quarter-finalist in the 2008American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest.  In November 2008, Jennifer won the “NaNoWriMo” writing challenge with an 85,000-word novel written over a 30 day period. In addition to writing and directing, Jennifer is also a producer, most recently working on the independent feature film THE PREACHER’S DAUGHTER (2012), showing on Lifetime.  Jennifer produced several USC graduate thesis films including the festival favorites UNSYNCABLES AT ANY AGE (2003), FIST OF IRON CHEF (2004), and PEBBLES (2005), as well as the A.C.E.-sponsored HD documentary  THE CUTTING EDGE: THE MAGIC OF MOVIE EDITING (2004). Jennifer currently teaches filmmaking at Houston Community College’s Audio Recording and Filmmaking Department, Spring Branch Campus. She is also a longtime member of Women in Film in Los Angeles, California.




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 6/3/15

Here’s an informal poll: what books have changed your life?

I’m not looking for a Facebook-viral list of 25 Important Books You’d Die on a Desert Island Without or anything like that. I want to know, what that one book is which changed something vital about your existence. You might have ten favorite books you could no sooner rank than you could choose a favorite among your children or pets. This is not that dilemma. What is the one piece of literature that made some aspect of you profoundly different?

There are many books which have affected me deeply, no doubt, in a variety of ways. But one book that absolutely changed the course of my life is Gregory Maguire’s Wicked. This book, and dinner with the author himself at a mutual friend’s home, inspired me to pursue fiction writing seriously rather than to get another degree in poetry. The course of my professional life was forever and probably irrevocably altered by this choice.

I’d love to know what book has mattered this much to you. In the comments below, leave an anecdote about a single book that has meant something special. In fact, the first five people to respond will get a free copy of Finis. for themselves or gifted to someone else.

Today’s Women Writers Wednesday comes to us from Carla Jean Whitley about a book which had a deep and lasting impact on her.


If you’re a bookworm, you’re probably acquainted with the experience of a book hangover, if not the term itself. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when you approach the end of a book that has captured not only your attention, but your heart. Book hangovers follow the stories, essays, or poems that affect a life so powerfully, it becomes hard to believe there are other books worth your time.

Within the first two chapters of Anna Quindlen’s “How Reading Changed My Life,” I knew that I’d encountered just such a book. In this essay collection, Quindlen recounts the value of reading, whether the object of your affection is high-brow literature or a novel from childhood. It’s only 96 pages, and so I was mourning its inevitable conclusion by the end of the second chapter.

from Random House's publicity site
from Random House’s publicity site

“How Reading Changed My Life” immediately found a place on the shelf among my favorite, most-trusted books. It’s a book I turn to time and again, and one I frequently select as a gift for fellow readers.

And while this remains the book of Quindlen’s I cherish the most, it is also the gateway drug. Her columns for the New York Times and Newsweek are compelling—she won a 1992 Pulitzer for her Times work, after all—and in the books that have collected those, I’ve found a kindred spirit. Quindlen is a writer, a mom, and a wife who offers insight on all areas of life. She left nonfiction years ago with the intent of working solely as a novelist (and her recent Still Life with Bread Crumbs is my favorite of her fiction). But over the years, Quindlen has continued to shed light on family, politics, life, and age. She is a woman I love to read.


Carla Jean Whitley is a writer, editor, and teacher based in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is a features writer for Alabama Media Group. She is the author of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music and Balancing Act: Yoga Essays. Her next book, Birmingham Beer: The Role of Alabama’s Largest City in Changing the State’s Beer Culture, is scheduled for release this spring. Connect with her at carlajeanwhitley.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.

Women Writers Wednesday 5/13/15

About this time of year, my status changes from “crazy busy” to “my Fuxtagiv Meter (TM) is approaching the null set.”

The stack of papers I have to grade is taller than my forearm is long. (Repeated flippant suggestions to assign less work or to not actually grade it all are neither appreciated nor apparently aware of what the job of teaching is about.) I have a countdown of how many days are left in the semester on my white board, but the countdown of how many more actual teaching days (meaning, days on which I lecture or lead a discussion or present new course material) is on an hourly tick-down in my head. Students come by to ask me for their averages at least four times a day. One might assume I don’t enjoy my teaching job — which would be mistaken, I assure you — if nearly all of my colleagues weren’t feeling the same way. We have days to weeks left in the school year. We are too busy.

One constant pursuit for not just me but most of the people I know in a similar situation to mine is the persistent struggle for work-life balance. I’m not sure I even know what a work-life balance is supposed to be. I’m pretty sure I don’t have it, or else I wouldn’t be so stressed out.

Remember when Real Simple magazine first came out? I do. I picked up a copy in the checkout line at The Container Store — drunk off the atmosphere of organization and efficiency that store fugues into its shoppers, seduced by the magazine cover’s promise to streamline my life. I got that tome home and never had time to read it. Seriously? I thought. Who has time to read two hundred pages of non-plot-driven small print? (The magazine has since improved.)

As soon as I get some time to myself — assuming I get some of that — I intend to read the book that’s being reviewed here in the Women Writers Wednesday series today. Betsy Polk brings to our attention Julia Scatliff O’Grady’s Good Busy: Productivity, Procrastination, and the Endless Pursuit of Balance. Fortunately, it sounds like a short, quick read, which means the author, unlike the early creators of Real Simple, already has some intelligence about the topic. Polk’s review is brief, too, but meaningful. Enjoy.


I’ll admit it. I was feeling “busy” when the deadline for this review approached. In fact, I’d become one of those people who responds to greetings of hello, how are you with an eye roll, a sigh and a “really busy.”

How had this happened when I’d long held fast to the belief that busy was not an emotion? It was merely a general situational condition, experienced by most people at various life points. Nothing special, certainly not discussion-worthy.

And, yet, though I would have been loath to admit it at the time, there was comfort in my busyness. After all, it was the result of a series of positive happenings: the publication of a book after years of editorial rejection; a series of happy milestone family events that required extensive event planning and some exciting work and travel opportunities. This was all good busy. So, who was I to sigh and roll my eyes about it?

I needed help and I found it, in Julia Scatliff O’Grady’s Good Busy: Productivity, Procrastination, and the Endless Pursuit of Balance.

cover image from Amazon
cover image from Amazon

This 88-page, lovely little blue guide is the perfect companion for the busy. It’s small enough to go anywhere, short enough to be read in one, peacefully blissful afternoon, and compelling enough to stick. Each of the ten chapters promotes a one word practice – from Buffer, the practice of building in time, to Hunt, finding the source of one’s busyness. O’Grady knows her audience and throughout this treasure box of a book, she adroitly engages her too-busy readers with pocket-sized wisdom their overwhelmed memories can retain. (I, for one, am clinging to the practice of “buffering,” as I strive to rid myself of the anxious buzz of impending lateness).

Make no mistake, this is no time management or how-to book. There’s no judgement here, no shoulds, no lists, just a collection of stories and guiding practices that illustrate what it means to understand and best embrace our current states of busy.

Thanks to the insights gleaned from Good Busy, I’ve found my own practice and am calling it gratitude. From now on, no more sighs or eye rolls for me – just thank yous for the gifts good busyness can bring.


Betsy is an author, keynote speaker, workshop leader, facilitator, mediator and board certified coach for The Mulberry Partners, the consulting firm she co-founded with Maggie Ellis Chotas in 2003.  With Maggie, Betsy co-authored Power through Partnership: How Women Lead Better Together, a book that celebrates the benefits that come when women work together and debunks the myths that too often get in the way (Berrett-Koehler, 2014).  The message of the book has resonated for women all over the world, leading to Betsy’s and Maggie’s selection as speakers for the US Department of State’s International Information Program. This year, Betsy and Maggie represented the program in Fiji and Papua New Guinea as presenters for International Women’s Day. Power Through Partnership has been featured in Investor’s Business Daily, msnbc.com, LevoLeague.com, Durham Magazine, The Las Vegas Business Press, The Huffington Post, HuffPostLive, Fortune.com, Time.com, and The Dallas Morning News.

Betsy received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and a master’s degree in organization development from the American University/NTL program. She lives in Chapel Hill, NC with her lively, fun family. Find her online on Twitter (@Powership) and at these websites: www.themulberrypartners.com; www.powerthrupartnership.comhttps://www.facebook.com/BetsyandMaggie.


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 5/6/15

Welcome the triumphant return of Women Writers Wednesdays! April’s Poet-A-Day series was so much fun again this year, and I look forward to its likely return next year, but I’m taking a well deserved break from posting daily and resuming a more typical course on the blog as we propel ourselves through the spring. Summer is coming, too, which means you’ll start to see more of my own original content here, because the school year will be finished and I’ll have more time for my multitude of writing projects (more on that later).

Today’s WWW review comes to us from Misty Urban, who has crafted a thoughtful response to What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins.


I met Kimberly Elkins in the MA program at Florida State University, where it was clear from our very first workshops that she was a monster talent, even before the story which forms the kernel of her novel won a fiction prize from The Atlantic Monthly. She’s so good that I sneakily tracked down and then read her master’s thesis cover-to-cover. What is Visible is a novel a long time in the making and benefits from this careful incubation and thoughtful research as much as from Elkins’ excellent training, inimitable sensibility, and pitch-perfect voice. It is, in short, a stupendous book.

image used with author's permission, borrowed from her website
image used with author’s permission, borrowed from her website

The novel tells the life story of Laura Bridgman, a nineteenth-century woman and resident of the Perkins Institute who was Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe’s most famous student before Helen Keller. She had already been something of a showpiece for Howe’s philosophies and teaching practices before Charles Dickens described her in his American Notes (1842, free at Project Gutenberg). Bridgman outdid Helen Keller by the power of two; childhood illness deprived her of sight, hearing, and her ability to taste or smell. The only sense remaining to her was that of touch.

Writers depend on the senses to bring their world alive for their readers—taste, scent, sound, and sight. How do you tell the story of a woman of intense intelligence, spirit, understanding, and affections, who can communicate only through her sense of touch?

Elkins does it—brilliantly—by weaving Laura’s first-person narrative with narration from some of the key figures around her: Dr. Howe (nicknamed “Chev”), his wife Julia Ward Howe, and Laura’s teacher-companion, Sarah Wight, who has her own interesting and tragic story within the larger frame of Laura’s life. Aside from the demands of writing about historical personages whose outer lives are well-documented, the time period presents its own challenges: philosophical debates over religion, the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination, and Julia’s career and influence (she of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” fame) all offer territory that a novelist can’t ignore.

Elkins makes a valiant effort with the Civil War material, summarizing where she can and focusing instead, poignantly, on the inner conflicts: Howe’s involvement with the rebellious John Brown, Julia’s attempt to console herself with public works as her marriage disintegrates, Laura’s change of heart regarding the plight of the slaves after she reads Uncle Tom’s Cabin in raised print. The intensity and vividness of these internal conflicts are the book’s great strength and beauty. Elkins portrays with equal care and precision Howe’s self-congratulatory airs as the beneficent patriarch and his “romantic friendship” with Charles Sumner, Julia’s bridal hopes and maternal woes as she establishes herself as a poet, Laura’s struggle to evolve spiritually and independently even though Doctor doesn’t wish to encourage what he sees as her fervor for religion.

But in a book full of vibrant characterizations, sly wit, and line-by-line beautiful prose, the centerpiece, of course, is Laura, and the language becomes truly transcendent when Elkins focuses on how Laura uses her single remaining sense to examine and interact with her world. She creates in Laura a memorable character who comes completely to life as a curious, sarcastic, jealous, perceptive, longing, occasionally vindictive, wonderfully clever and wounded person who can never get enough of physical touch, especially from other people. Just one example appears in this moving passage, in which Laura has just introduced the new servant girl, Kate, to her horse Wightie, and is feeling Kate’s hair:

I slide one finger into the mass. When she doesn’t recoil, very slowly my whole hand enters, fingers first, an inch at a time, until it is suspended in that soft forest.

            She doesn’t move away from me, though she doesn’t move toward me either. I can tell from the thrust of her shoulder that she is stroking Wightie’s mane. My hand in Kate’s mane, hers in Wightie’s; nothing has prepared me for the perfection of this moment. I am careful not to pull, though I want to, and am ready to bury my whole face—the tip of my nose already in, my lower lip so close a tendril vibrates in my sharp exhale—when my arm is grabbed and wrenched away. My fingers tangle in Kate’s hair, and she twists against me.

            Jeannette has made me hurt the girl. She grips my forearm and shakes it free of all that beauty. We are separated, and when I put my hands out in front of me, there is nothing but briny wind against my palms. (171)

Far beyond the pleasure of stepping into the inner lives of these historical characters, the reader learns to experience the world as Laura does. She is so perfectly realized in the way she adores the Doctor and competes with Julia for his attention, or how she feels superior to the “blinds” at the school who only lack the one sense, but at night crawls into bed with them, in punishment for which she is not only confined to her own room but, in one of the most painful scenes of the novel, forced to wear gloves. Laura loves but never belongs to or with her birth family; she struggles with religious feeling and makes a final break with the Unitarian Doctor when she insists of becoming Baptist; she has a different relationship to sensations and pain, given they are how she translates the world; she even enjoys and then loses a lover. For all the unique imagination that makes this book so (to borrow Bob Shacochis’s word) mesmerizing, the most memorable, the most compelling aspect is the fierce spirit of stubbornness, independence, passion, and individuality with which Elkins imbues this historical woman who would otherwise be completely defined by her limitations. As the strong-willed Laura declares, “I refuse to be anything but myself, whatever that is” (240). Good fiction trains its readers in empathy and understanding; in liberating the inner world of this remarkable woman, Elkins cultivates compassion and insight with a force that is heart-breakingly relevant, and breath-takingly real.


Misty Urban is the author of Monstrous Women in Middle English Romance and several works of short fiction appearing in national journals and Sisters: An Anthology from Paris Press. She holds a Ph.D. in medieval English literature, an MFA in fiction, and she went to Florida State University with Kimberly Elkins. Find her blog on women and literature, Femmeliterate, at madwriters.net.


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 4/15/15

Tonight, as Women Writers Wednesday and Poet-A-Day collide so beautifully, enjoy a review of Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars in a thoughtful review by Christa M. Forster. You can read one of Christa Forster’s poems from last year’s Poem-A-Day series here.


My God, It’s Full of Duende

A Review of Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars


What do you need to know about Tracy K. Smith’s third book of poems, Life on Mars, before you read it? Do you need to know that it won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry? Maybe you need to know that her two previous books — The Body’s Question and Duende — won the Cave Canem Prize and the James Laughlin Award, respectively. Maybe all you need to know is that any poet bold enough to title a book Duende better be worth her salt. Trust me (and the Cave Canem, James Laughlin and Pulitzer prize committees): Tracy K. Smith is worth it.


In the first poem in Life on Mars, “The Weather in Space,” Smith announces what kind of multiverse she’s writing from: our very contemporary one. In the present, which now more than ever feels simultaneously like the future and the past, “When the storm / Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing / After all we’re certain to lose, so alive — / faces radiant with panic.” Right after this, Smith begins the book again with the poem “Sci-Fi,” which alludes to an impending, existential cosmic storm: our technology’s distractions and demands — specifically our rapacious social media — have seduced us away from our necessary solitudes and productive boredoms, resulting in a psychosocial landscape that bodes the kind of loneliness visible in every sex club. Smith illuminates this emotional apocalypse in stunning, declarative couplets with the command of a matriarch-savant:


There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.


History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,


Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.


Women will still be women, but
The distinction will be empty. Sex,


Having outlived every threat, will gratify
Only the mind, which is where it will exist.


For kicks, we’ll dance for ourselves
Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.


In this first half of “Sci-Fi,” the reader recognizes the distinct grip of Smith’s poetic capabilities. Her poems swing musically from image to philosophical statement to narrative, to image again. Her mastery affects the reader with a cumulative weight that must be born; the weight is painful, but, even more than that, deeply and strangely pleasurable. In the multi-sectioned tour-de-force, “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” Smith’s felicitous angst recalls another end-of-an-era writer: William Shakespeare. Here’s section 4 — in its entirety — from this poem:



In those last scenes of Kubrick’s 2001
When Dave is whisked into the center of space,
Which unfurls in an aurora of orgasmic light
Before opening wide, like a jungle orchid
For a love-struck bee, and then gauze wafting out and off,
Before, finally, the night tide, luminescent
And vague, swirls in, and on and on….


In those last scenes, as he floats
Above Jupiter’s vast canyons and seas,
Over the lava strewn plains and mountains
Packed in ice, that whole time, he doesn’t blink.
In his little ship, blind to what he rides, whisked
Across the wide-screen of unparcelled time,
Who knows what blazes through his mind?
Is it still his life he moves through, or does
That end at the end of what he can name?


On set, it’s shot after shot till Kubrick is happy,
Then the costumes go back on their racks
And the great gleaming set goes black.


* * *
A lesser poet might have ended this section with the foreboding question. After all, isn’t this what everyone wants to know: Does one’s life end at the end of what one can name? But she is not a lesser poet. With Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith establishes herself in the pantheon of visionary poets. Her impulse to look at and name history — the history of her era, which is our era — is richly rewarding and generative; in fact, her work is full of that ineffable life-blood of solitude and wonder — full, that is, of duende.


Christa Forster: Writer, Teacher, Performer whose goal is to make life more meaningful for herself and others through Education and Art. Follow her on Twitter @xtaforster.

Women Writer’s Wednesday 4/8/15

Shortly after I’d graduated from college and was teaching, one of my coworkers at Houston Community College, Eddie Gallaher, introduced me to the poetry of Leslie Adrienne Miller. “She’s good,” he said. “You’ll like her.”

He spoke of her as if he knew her personally. She was a contemporary poet, still producing work. He handed me her book Yesterday Had A Man In It. The author photo on the back cover was of a beautiful, young looking woman.

I had never read Miller’s work before and was happy to take it home and give it a look. “Thank you,” I told him and slipped it into my briefcase.

That night I opened up to a random page and started reading. After that poem was finished, I flipped to another random page and started reading again. And again. Soon I just went to page one and dug in, then read the entire volume in a single night. Miller’s poems imprinted upon me in a way that other poems, other poets, simply hadn’t. I couldn’t explain why — and to this day, I’m not sure I can. I just read them and love them. I don’t flag them to teach one day, I don’t recommend them to people obsessively for two weeks after I’ve read them, I don’t leave her books out on my coffee table. I just read them and love them.

And sometimes they make me want to write.

When I first read Yesterday Had A Man In It, I finished it in the middle of the night after a long work day. At the time I was on a sestina kick; that was my favorite and go-to form back then. (I confess I still enjoy writing them.) At that time I was trying to process a relationship that had sort of maybe ended but not for any identifiable reason other than distance. It had been with a good man whom I loved, who wouldn’t say he loved me but sometimes really acted like it. And the relationship didn’t appear to have truly ended. It was in a weird place, and I was willing to allow that without complaint because of the possibility of something more our current friendship promised.

It’s possible I may have been emotionally delirious.

At any rate, I picked up a pen and a legal pad and, in response to Miller’s book, wrote this poem. It first appeared in my chapbook Barefoot on Marble: Twenty Poems, 1995-2001.




Bleeding the Sky


In the time when my fingernails
were painted to perfection with a color
called “Granite” (poorly named, for proudly I wore it), I wished
for perfection poetic like the sky’s and knew as do the sage
gods (with wisdom buried and hard to recognize) it did not exist, could not
exist, as long as I thought about, wished for it.


I understood finally that it
was no small thing, that I could not drag my fingernails
across the sky (dark as a blackboard) and not
expect it to bleed with a dark color,
the color of wild primrose and sage
bound together with the strings of a deep red wish.


And I read the other poems, the wishes
of people who had scraped past its
perfection, beyond the sky where stars (like sage
old nuns) lay embedded like granite pebbles, breaking my thin fingernails
when I disagreed and tried to scrape them away to write their pale colors
out of the sky. And those other poems were not


gentle! Their words twisted my heart into knots
and turned my brain onto its side, wishing
for darkness to overpower their colors:
fear and passion and shame and anger, and love so deep it
grows outward from myself until its reach is longer than my fingertips’ –
even after I’ve stretched my arms out to touch the sagging


sky. And those other words were the sky, painted in colors (sage
and wild primrose and granite and black and red) and not
forgiving of my inept, fumbling fingers.
But I wanted to write! And even so I wished
a paradox: for you to hold my impulse down, to keep it
from spilling the perfect sky’s blood-colors


on my hands… but even now I do not know how to keep the colors
from their heaviness, to stop them from their sagging.
Had you been there you’d have had no small task holding it,
that fire-out-of-bounds impulse, and I could not
have been responsible for my actions or my wishes…
But I might have held you down with the sky (saved from my nails


by the exquisite distraction of you), my fingers dipped in the colors
of sage and wild primrose red (the hues of wishes
never before filled), not ashamed to paint granite words all over you and love it.




Women Writers Wednesday 4/1/15

This month I’m running two series at the same time. I’ve already got Women Writers Wednesdays going strong, but I also like to feature different poets each day during the month of April for National Poetry Month. (The latter is a series I started last April, and you can follow those posts from 2014 starting here.)

But this year, I didn’t want to abandon my Women Writers Wednesday series, which has been so much fun and so well received, and so this month, I’m hoping to have WWW reviews of female poets. We’ll commence that today with Anna Leahy’s review of Broom by Joelle Biele.

There is information at the end of this post on how to contribute to the WWW series, if you’re so inclined. And I may still end up with a couple of spots left over in the Poet-A-Day series this month, so if you’d like to get in an eleventh-hour submission, now’s a really good time to contact me.


Broom by Joelle Biele


Joelle Biele and I studied together as MFA students at the University of Maryland years ago. Though I haven’t spent time with her since, she was then an incredibly attentive, writerly reader and a very good poet, so I have followed her career—the poetry collection White Summer and the book of Elizabeth Bishop’s correspondences with The New Yorker that she edited. Two of Broom’s poems, “Apologia” and “Birthday Poem,” appeared in TAB, the literary journal I edit. Perhaps, these connections make me not objective enough, but it seems more likely that Joelle has earned my respect through her writing over the years and that my awareness of our connections increases the burden I feel to explain my enthusiasm for her new book.


BROOM cover


Broom is the winner of the Bordighera Poetry Prize, which is funded by The Sonia Raiziss-Giop Charitable Foundation and is housed at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute. As a result of this context, the poems in Broom appear in English on left-hand pages and as Italian translations by Irene Marchegiani and Emanuele Pettener on right-hand pages. I don’t read Italian, but I appreciate the juxtaposition and the visual and tactile reminder of the larger world, the wide audience for poetry, and the notion that words and form matter.


More than ten years ago, poet Beth Ann Fennelly published an article called “The Winnowing of Wildness: On First Book Contests and Style,” which explored the pressures that emerging poets are under to produce a stylistically and/or thematically cohesive collection. Fennelly argues that someone like Elizabeth Bishop would have likely not produced North and South as we know it, that we would be left with “an impaired understanding of her development as a writer,” and that we would not understand her later poems as deeply.


I agree with Fennelly to some extent but must admit that I often like the ways poets play with cohesiveness in a collection and think Broom is an especially terrific exploration of both coherence and range. Biele conveys a voice, style, and loose theme and uses that to expand, spinning closer to and further from those elements.


Numerous fourteen-line (sonnet-length) poems to her children Katherine and Andrew are threaded through this book. In the poem “To Andrew: at Seventeen Months,” the child asks the speaker for the kitchen broom, sweeps and role-plays with it, all the while “waving your baton, directing me / into my life, into what I don’t know.” In these poems to the two children, the speaker is learning, often awed, sometimes worried, and always tilting into the next moment and the next. So these poems are about motherhood and about childhood but also about how any of us might experience life, open to experience and appreciative of the fleeting moments that continue to shape us year after year.


Biele’s poems attend to form and rhythm, so I was surprised to find a short essay as the third of four sections in the book. This prose piece fits beautifully; it discusses the past, childhood, danger, response. “The Field” negotiates emotional and intellectual understanding of the past and made me think about events of my own past that shaped me or, interestingly, didn’t. Joelle and I grew up making up our own play, whereas children these days have scheduled play dates. Reading this piece cast me back into other poems, seeing them as even more suggestive of universal touchstones.


Perhaps my favorite poems are “Biopsy” and “Edisto,” which, to my sensibility, speak to each other, though they are positioned far apart. “Biopsy” is a fourteen-line poem in which the speaker observes the biopsy on the beloved you. The speaker believes “whoever has the most information wins.” We want to believe, especially in the face of a cancer diagnosis, that information is power. The poem reveals at the end, “Fourteen months later you entered remission. / I thought it was over. It was only the start.”


“Edisto” dwells in a place, as numerous other poems in Broom explore how place or nature shapes us: “Did we think we could live here, that we could / change our lives, that we could drive / down these sandy roads and pull to the side […]?” Yes, in fact, that’s what we tend to think, and if that’s true, we can learn how a stream heals by scarring over and how an iris flowers before dying. The poem’s wisdom is that “[…] we knew to be saved / we had to become something else […]”


Broom, then, suggests that we can look back to see how we have become who we are, though that’s a precarious understanding that doesn’t predict the future. What happens to the speaker in these poems did not happen to me, but we each have people, places, and events in our lives that create meaning. To survive, we must change and allow ourselves to be changed. We continually become who we are, Broom beautifully asserts.


Anna Leahy’s book Constituents of Matter won the Wick Poetry Prize, and recent essays appear at Literary Orphans and OZY. She teaches in the MFA and BFA programs at Chapman University, where she curates the Tabula Poetica Reading Series and edits the international journal TAB. She co-writes Lofty Ambitions blog at http://loftyambitions.wordpress.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.