Review of “All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangers” by Alana Massey

All the Lives I Want

All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangers is a collection of essays written by Alana Massey where she connects the lives of celebrities to her own life. From Winona Ryder to Princess Diana, Massey explores the legacies of these famous women while using them to reveal personal details about herself. She does this to show both that we are not that different from celebrities and how their lives both relate to and have an effect on her own. This book is the first for Alana Massey, but her experience in writing goes beyond this. Her essays, criticism, reviews, and reporting have had regular appearances in publications such as the Guardian, New York Magazine, Buzzfeed, and more.

All the Lives I Want contains fifteen different essays featuring over twenty famous women between them. Her first essay, “Being Winona; Freeing Gwyneth: On the Limitations of Celebrity Type,” discusses Winona Ryder’s shoplifting incident from 2001 and Gwyneth Paltrow’s “conscious uncoupling” from Coldplay singer Chris Martin. Massey created a theory that she was a “Winona in a world made for Gwyneth’s.” As she states “This theory positions the one time best friends as two distinct categories of white women who are conventionally attractive but whose public images exemplify dramatically different lifestyles and world views.” She identifies herself as a Winona and her ex’s new girlfriend as a “total Gwyneth”. She understands that she used Winona as “an avatar that represented [her] own suffering.” She makes a point here which she makes in later essays that people are their own selves and even if someone identifies with someone else, that doesn’t mean they are identical.

An essay that wasn’t as strong was “Heavenly Creatures: The Gospels According to Lana, Fiona, and Dolly.” This essay discussed a close comparison between Fiona Apple and Lana Del Ray and a loose comparison to Dolly Parton as a way to discuss how these female artists portray sex and relationships, with Apple and Del Ray being on the racier side and Parton being on the more conservative side. What I gathered her point to be in this essay was sometimes young singers such as Apple were forced to portray a sexuality that was reflective of a person older than themselves while Parton was able to move away from sexuality and focus on hurt in relationships. Maybe it was just me, but I felt Massey focused too much on Apple and Del Ray and portrayals of sexuality and then just threw Parton in there as a way to show not all singers have to do this.

The next essay, one that I looked forward to because of the subjects was, “No She Without Her: On Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and the Singularity.” Massey discussed a slight personal connections with the twins as they were students with her for a brief time at New York University. “They were not just celebrities, they were our classmates,” she notes while discussing a fellow student who had wall to wall pictures of the twins. Massey also remember how there was a countdown until the Olsens turned eighteen and how that disgusted her: “[The media] wrote as though the only thing in the way of unbridled passion between ordinary sleazes and billionaire teenage performers and entrepreneurs was a pesky statutory rape law that would soon be irrelevant.” While the message of this particular essay was clear—defying and dehumanizing women because they are in the public eye is wrong— getting to Massey’s point was a little difficult. In an essay where she is supposed to be relating these celebrities’ lives to herself, she barely mentions herself. She also never explicitly states her point, only her disgust and judgement. I wanted her to go beyond the concept of them being young and go into the problem with how young girls are made to feel like this dehumanization and degrading of women is okay, when it isn’t, but she never did get beyond the initial disgust.

In several of Massey’s essays, the connections to the particular celebrities felt loose and the points were difficult to grasp. There were some, such as “Our Sisters Shall Inherit the Sky: On the Lisbon Sisters and the Misnomer of The Virgin Suicides,” an essay which discussed Massey’s relationship to her sister and the book and movie The Virgin Suicides, where she seemed to alter too rapidly between casting judgment and admiration on the characters and narrators of the story. She would say things such as, “Though the boys never admit as much, it is crucial that the Lisbon sisters are all thin and beautiful within reason,” however she also states, “I wanted a boy to look at me and see mystery of my own making,” where she practically applauds the glamorized view the adult male narrators are putting on five girls who took their own lives years ago. She discussed how the characters were wrong but never really focused on the fact that the glamorization of depression and suicide portrayed in the novel is a bad message.

The concepts and points of each of the essays were practical and often relatable in the sense that everyone expresses insecurity and compares themselves to others and makes mistakes, To be honest, I would not recommend this book as a whole because many of the essays felt like they had no bigger point than the fact that the celebrities were living their lives and others were observing. However, I would recommend the essay, “Public Figures: Britney’s Body Is Everybody’s,” an essay that deals with weight issues and eating disorders and the pressures society puts on women to be the correct weight. In this essay, Massey states “[Men’s] standard calibrations for the weight of a petite woman is between 100 and 115 pounds, an average woman 115 to 125, and tall ones 125 to 135,” clearly stating that they are wrong to assume this and that is a major problem within society.

Another good essay was “All the Lives I Want: Recovering Sylvia,” This one debunked the myth that what we read and who we admire doesn’t necessarily have a major and consequential effect on our person. Just because Sylvia Plath committed suicide doesn’t mean her admirers will as well. As I discussed earlier, regarding “Being Winona; Freeing Gwyneth: On the Limitations of Celebrity Type,” not all women are the same and cannot just be put into two categories.

Lastly, “A Bigger Fairy Tale: On Angelica Huston and the Inheritance of Glamour.” This one shows the power of women. It displays a woman, Angelica Huston and how she was strong even though she was betrayed by a man. She was equally as strong with and without him and that’s the way it should be. She admires Huston, “Angelica’s memories are unapologetically steeped in Hollywood decadence and the class privilege that accompanied her fellow travelers on these journeys” These four essays were the ones that I found to be the most enjoyable of the collection and also the four that succeeded the best in getting their message across.


About the Author Alana Massey: I’m a writer covering identity, culture, virtue, and vice. I’m the author of All The Lives I Want, a collection of essays reimagining the lives and legacies of famous women in a way that makes it easier for us to forgive ourselves. My writing appears in Elle, The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York Magazine, Vice, The New Republic, Pacific Standard, BuzzFeed, The New Inquiry, and more. I split my time between Brooklyn and my farmhouse in the Catskills where I write, read,  drink champagne, listen to pop music, and Photoshop glamorous collages of myself like the one you see here.


About the author this post: Kate Haley is a sophomore at North Central College where she studies English Writing and Organizational Communication. When she is not spouting off random facts about anything and everything, she fills her time with reading copious amounts of books and writing novels that will hopefully become best-sellers (or at the best, sellers).

Ross White Group Interview Part 3

ross-whiteRoss White is a poet and teacher living in Durham, NC. With Matthew Olzmann, he edited Another & Another: An Anthology from the Grind Daily Writing Series. He was the 2012 winner of the James Larkin Pearson Prize and the Gladys Owings Hughes Prize. His poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2012, Poetry Daily, New England Review, The Southern Review, and others. He is a four-time recipient of work-study and administrative scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and currently teaches poetry writing and grammar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.


You’re a teacher as well as a poet and editor – how do those three jobs affect one another?

I think all three are born of a curiosity about the human condition and an unflappable belief that it is mutable. Mutable in the sense being apt, and perhaps likely, to change, but also in the sense of being inconstant in one’s affections. Editing is the act of allegiance to a manuscript while pushing for it to become something else, whether that something is a set of copy edits or a change in the project that steers it more clearly toward its true intention. Teaching is the act of allegiance to the student as a person, even as the education you provide changes who that person is. Writing is the act of allegiance to the human experience and a desire to transform it into something new.

I try to approach all three with tenderness. I try to approach all three with ruthlessness. The balance between those two is always in flux. What I learn on one side of the equation is often reflected on the other– as soon as I am smart enough to adjust. Though I am often not quick to adjust; so much of each of those roles comes first from the gut, and I often need a lot of time to reflect on what I have learned by doing. Only then can I transfer the knowledge from one discipline to another. Early in my career, I overthought so much of my writing and teaching, but I had so little experience and knowledge that the base of what I was thinking about was narrow. Whatever towers I was building were so easy to topple. The more I read, the more I experiment, the more confident I become in trying things that I haven’t seen before, in trying things where the outcome remains uncertain and mysterious once I’ve begun.

What is one piece that you have accepted for the press that has changed your perspective on reading and writing, and how has it done so?

I can’t say that there’s a book, poem or story we’ve accepted that changed my perspective on reading and writing. I can say that some of the pieces we’ve accepted changed my perspective on what it is to be human. They made the world at once more vast and more intimate, and I’m truly grateful for that. As poetry requires that the reader use imagination and empathy, so too does it provide an imaginative kindling, and the books that have changed me have left me with new space to explore what lived experience might mean. Tommye Blount’s What Are We Not For is a profoundly animate book, one I have savored every time I’ve read it.

What is your personal writing style and preferences, and how does this affect the works you choose for publication?

I always have the hardest time answering questions about my own style. I think that’s because I’d prefer not to have one– if there’s something I can’t do yet, I’m probably trying to learn. I don’t think anyone who reads my poems would call me a formalist, but I aspire to that; I don’t think anyone would accuse me of being an experimentalist, but I aspire to that too. I love reading a little bit of everything and when I sit down to draft poems, I find myself borrowing strategies from whatever has me enthralled at the time.

As a reader, I know I have a bias for the unfamiliar. I love strangeness in its many forms– the grotesque, the absurd, the dissociative, the transgressive– because strange poems are so often, for me, the jumper cables that recharge my own sense of wonder at the world. But when I encounter a poem or a chapbook that gives me that jolt, the editor in my brain almost immediately converts to the role of skeptic. I begin interrogating the poem like it’s a Russian spy. I begin wondering if I’m falling for a misdirection or deception because it supports my pre-existing view of the world.

I also want poems to feel lived in, which is something I try to do in my own work. I mistrust poems that rely on centuries’ worth of someone else’s feeling, and add little to that field of feeling. I generally call these poems “pretty birds and trees” poems out of snarkiness, but really, they’re poems that pretend to join the long poetic conversation, where poets ranging from Lucille Clifton to George Herbert to W. B. Yeats to Emily Dickinson are speaking to each other, without ever adding something new, something vital, about the world as it is today.

Ross White Group Interview Part 2

 

ross-whiteRoss White is a poet and teacher living in Durham, NC. With Matthew Olzmann, he edited Another & Another: An Anthology from the Grind Daily Writing Series. He was the 2012 winner of the James Larkin Pearson Prize and the Gladys Owings Hughes Prize. His poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2012, Poetry Daily, New England Review, The Southern Review, and others. He is a four-time recipient of work-study and administrative scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and currently teaches poetry writing and grammar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.


How has your definition of success changed since becoming an active member of the publishing world?

Becoming a publisher helped me redefine success in my own writing life. When I was starting out, editors were such mysterious creatures. I would invest a great deal of time in thinking about a journal and what its aesthetic is, agonizing over which of several poems would be the best ones to send in. I would take each rejection as a small failure– and, of course, let those failures pile up. Success seemed so far away.

Oddly enough, now that I’m an editor, I’ve come to understand that a rejection is still a success.

When reading through manuscripts– whether they’re chapbook-length collections for Bull City Press or a set of five poems for Four Way Review– I’m keenly aware of my own fallibility. There’s a lot of incredible poetry out there, far more than any one journal or press could ever print. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to turn away work that I thought was excellent, because it just didn’t fit with what we were hoping to do next. At Four Way Review, it might have something to do with a poem’s fit (or lack thereof) with a set of poems we’ve already accepted. At Bull City Press, we might pass on a great book because it’s too close to a project we’ve recently completed.

Editors, like writers, want to improve throughout their whole careers. So my strategy of obsessing over exactly which poems to send to a journal was foolhardy– I was sending poems to where I thought the editor was, rather than where they wanted to be next. And that’s impossible to predict. So now, I read the journal to get a rough sense of the aesthetic, but I don’t worry too hard about which particular poems I send, as long as I feel those poems demonstrate the craftsmanship that the journal will require and are in the ballpark of subject matter and aesthetic.

Maybe it’s not as painful as receiving the rejection, but I do feel disappointment each time I pass on work that I admire. So, on the writing side, I now view each rejection as a kind of success– I’m celebrating the fact that I keep sending work out, knowing that the road to publication is difficult. The more I have relaxed, the more pieces I have had accepted for publication in journals I adore. Dream journals.

When reading already established literature, one feels it is the reader’s duty to decipher meaning from the text. When reading submissions from un-established authors, do you feel the impetus is placed upon them to impress you, and, if so, how does that affect your reading of literary works?

I don’t think I read much differently when reading submissions. They’re really just books or poems or stories that aren’t yet published, but some– a lot of them, really– will be. I’ve read a number of chapbooks from my favorite presses over the last few years and thought, “Oh, we had the chance to consider this at Bull City Press. I liked this a lot.” The sad fact is that we routinely turn away great work. I mean, great work. If I had no shortage of time or money, we’d probably publish a ton of books.

So, yeah, I guess, when I open a submission, I work from the assumption that the work deserves publication. I’m just trying to figure out whether I’ll have a hand in that publication, whether I believe it fits with what our audience hungers for, whether it fills a space in our catalog or magazine that nothing else could possibly fill, whether it does so with a tenacity and exactitude that stuns me. When I first started editing, my litmus test was, “Do I think I’ll still love this so fiercely in ten years that I’d publish it again?” Now, a decade in, I’m feeling like the younger me made some pretty good decisions.

Certainly, I feel the responsibility to impress me rests with the book– whether Simon & Schuster just published it or it comes to us through one of our reading periods. I think the onus is always on the writer to present the information in the most compelling form appropriate to the material. And I think the onus is always on the reader to participate, to bring the requisite imagination needed to transform words on the page into a populated, textured world in which to live for a while. The transformation simply must be initiated by the words at hand, and while I may or may not reliably make the meaning the author intends (and may or may not make meanings that the author did not intend but are indeed both reasonable and quite satisfying), the richness of the transformation that the words instigate determines the success or failure of the piece.

How much truth do you believe the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” still holds? And with that said, what are some criteria you consider when choosing cover art?

I don’t know that it holds any truth at all. There are some lovely covers on bad books, and bad covers on lovely books. Sure. But I absolutely want Bull City Press books to be judged by their covers. From our earliest days, Philip McFee at Flying Hand Studio has been an indispensible partner in the creative process. He is exact in his attention to the manuscripts we’ve accepted, and his designs are often stitched together from various images. A few times, he’s presented a cover, and I’ve asked, “Hey, that photo is terrific… where did you get it?” And he’ll reply, “That’s eighteen different photos composited together.” He combs each manuscript looking for its relevant imagistic systems, but when it comes time to create the final art, he often steps just to the side of a literal representation of those images. So the covers almost always evoke, in some sly way, specific things you’ll find in the book, but they never give any part of the experience away. Philip has designed all but two of our books, and is even redesigning our re-releases of some Origami Zoo Press titles.

Ross White Group Interview Part 1

ross-whiteRoss White is a poet and teacher living in Durham, NC. With Matthew Olzmann, he edited Another & Another: An Anthology from the Grind Daily Writing Series. He was the 2012 winner of the James Larkin Pearson Prize and the Gladys Owings Hughes Prize. His poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2012, Poetry Daily, New England Review, The Southern Review, and others. He is a four-time recipient of work-study and administrative scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and currently teaches poetry writing and grammar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.


How did you start Bull City Press and what inspired you to do so? What was the original intent behind starting this publication and what kind of values does Bull City Press hold?

The press is a happy accident. I was working an office job with two friends, and we discovered blink, a tiny magazine Robert West had published for several years. Though we didn’t know it, the magazine had changed editors and gone defunct. But we were so entranced by it. We wrote to the editor and asked if we could become her staff; we sent in money for subscriptions. Several months passed. We asked again. Nothing. So we wrote to Robert and said, “We’d like to start a magazine like blink. If you’ll share your subscriber list with us, we’ll send our new magazine to them for a year.” He did.

My friends were content with our magazine, Inch, but I wanted to start working on books. My initial plan was to make all of our chapbooks by hand– saddled stapled on good paper, just as Inch is– but when I solicited a book from Ellen C. Bush, what she sent was so stunning I couldn’t imagine it as anything other than a perfect-bound book. So I got into publishing as a kind of hobby, and the quality of the work made me get really serious about it. I wanted to do a service to the authors who’d entrusted me with such fine poems.

Over the years, a number of volunteers have become part of Bull City Press. When Origami Zoo Press was planning to shut its doors, we acquired all of their titles and Rebecca King came aboard. One of our former contributors reached out to help us form a partnership with The Frost Place, which has led to astounding chapbooks coming our way and some very special opportunities for our winners. What’s so special about that spirit of volunteerism is that it’s made us such a community-oriented press. None of us has yet had to draw a salary from the press, so we’ve been selling our books as cheaply as we can and committing to our authors for their whole careers– whether or not they continue to publish with us.

Don’t get me wrong– we do pay authors for their work, and one of my goals for the press is to one day be able to pay our editors, too. I think that’s ahead. Our core value has always been treating people right and being great literary citizens.

What types of positions are there at the press and how do they fit into each other? What is a typical day like at the press?

There is no typical day for a tiny, volunteer-run press! I think that’s what I love so much about it. We use Slack to communicate, so in an average day, I might talk with Noah to let him know about some good news from a former Inch contributor, chat with Cameron about how we can help a new title reach its readers, or compare notes with Julia about a fiction manuscript she’s editing. If I’m lucky, I’m boxing and shipping orders for at least a few minutes every day. Some months, I’m reading submissions for our chapbook contest or reading period until my eyeballs are about ready to fall out. Other months, I’ll be more focused on working with an author on the editorial process or producing envelopes for the new issue of Inch.

Our positions generally break down into Associate Editors, who work on acquiring and editing books, our editors and readers at Inch, and some support staff who help with a range of tasks associated with getting the books into readers’ hands– publicity, social media, contributor news. And I kind of do a little bit of all of that, as well as running our little warehouse in my basement.

What are some of the major challenges you have faced in establishing your own press?

Since the press was a happy accident, I had to learn everything from the ground up. And believe me, there was a steep learning curve. I made mistakes on just about everything at first, and almost killed the press outright a few times by over-ordering some of our early titles. Thankfully, I had a day job for the first ten years, so I was able to pump cash into making books and magazines.

The wonderful thing about the publishing industry is that so few small presses feel like they’re in competition with other small presses. There’s a ridiculous amount of support out there, whether it’s from CLMP or directly from people at other presses. For example, Martha Rhodes at Four Way Books, who seemed to me like a big New York publisher, has never hesitated to answer any question I had, no matter how insane or inane.

How has your work experience prepared you for this job?

I’ve worked in some wonderful and bizarre places: public schools, comedy theaters, a factory that made water monitors for nuclear power plants, a comic book store. Each one had something to teach me about the writing life and this press.

In public schools, I became convinced of the infinite capacity for good created by a dedicated group of individuals. The national narrative around the “greedy teacher” that grew out of Scott Walker’s battle with the Wisconsin teacher’s union could not have been more wrong. Most teachers aren’t greedy, because if they were, they’d be in another line of work. These are people who show up, day after day, in some of the most discouraging conditions in our country, and they go to battle for their kids. Because they believe. They believe in the power of an education to change lives. I learned in public schools to empower those believers, and to keep cultivating a sense of opportunity, because they really could do just about anything– an experience that’s been echoed by the impossibly talented and dedicated volunteers that have built Bull City Press over the years.

From comedy theaters, I learned some hard lessons about creative anxiety. I was the artistic director and director of the training center for a theater where talented performers would sometimes struggle for months on end. When you live in your head, where you develop a vision for the world as it doesn’t yet exist, that can be extremely frustrating, and recognizing that the tools available to you to express that world are still developing can be acutely disquieting. I learned in that environment to anticipate that anxiety– and to orient creative people to it. It’s easy to assume, “Oh, your book has been accepted for publication, so everything must be peachy,” but in truth, the editorial and design process is punishing and vulnerable for a lot of writers, especially if they’re doing it for the first time.

While I was in college, I was a stockboy in a factory that made water monitors for nuclear power plants. My days consisted of counting and re-counting diodes and transistors, and passing orders for the requisite parts to someone at another location. The stockroom was 100 degrees most days, and I was the only person working in the factory who didn’t have a Ph.D. in chemical or mechanical engineering, so you can imagine what the lunch-table conversation was like. It was drudgery, seemingly endless drudgery, but it taught me a lot about the painstaking precision that goes into anything worth doing. I still marvel at the fact that as a 19-year-old, I could make a small contribution to a device so indispensable, but of course, all great efforts are the product of hundreds and thousands of smaller efforts.

Review of “Pelican” by Emily O’Neill

emily_pelicanEmily O’Neill’s Pelican is a beautiful, complicated, and dense collection of poetry that delves deep into senses and subjects. These elements work perfectly together as O’Neill talks about difficult subjects such as death and loss while also using subtle words and tones to equalize how the reader takes in the poems. One of these poems called “Buying Flowers in the Lobby Gift Shop” is clearly about a loved one in the hospital at some stage of end of life.

Another one of O’Neill’s poems called “How I Am Not My Mother” talks about how she wants to be like her mother, without all of the negative aspects that comes with being like her. For example, in one line O’Neill writes, “I want to be the same ghost” which is an interesting line because it forces the reader to question what it so bad about a shadow, and what kind of relationship the author has/had with her mother that would she would only want to be a “shadow” of her.

Yet another poem from O’Neill that is filled with complicated messages is one entitled “The Ballad of Sexual Adventure”. Here she talks about what seems to be a first sexual encounter of some kind and using a few well-known tropes to describe what’s happening, such as the imagery of two young people lying on a trampoline together, as the boy in the poem begins to put his hand down the narrator’s pants. The imagery is beautiful here in the beginning of the poem but that seems to be where it ends for this one. The rest of the poem is quite confusing as the rest of the poem doesn’t seem to connect with the beginning, almost as if they are two separate ideas being put together.

In another poem entitled “The Coffin Letter” O’Neill again seems to be trying to connect two different ideas, moments, or thoughts into one poem that unfortunately just don’t seems to be working well as at some points in the poem. It seems at times that she is writing a heartfelt goodbye to a loved one, and then at other times seems to be so cynical about the whole thing that it doesn’t even matter if the other parts were heartfelt in the first place.

Overall the book is thoughtfully put together and has nice contrasts from most modern poetry about the subjects that O’Neill covers.


emilyoneillauthorphotoAbout the Author: Emily O’Neill is an artist, writer, and proud Jersey girl.  She tells loud stories in her inside voice because she wants to keep you close. Her work has appeared in The Best Indie Lit New England Anthology, Cutbank, The Journal, Sugar House Review, Washington Square and Whiskey Island, among many others.  Her poem “de Los Muertos” was selected by Jericho Brown as the winner of Gigantic Sequins’ second annual poetry contest. Her debut collection, Pelican (2015, available now), is the inaugural winner of YesYes Books’ Pamet River Prize for first and second collections by women and genderqueer authors.  She is the author of two chapbooks: Celeris (Fog Machine, 2016) and You Can’t Pick Your Genre (Jellyfish Highway, 2016). Former editor and essayist for Side B Magazine, she currently edits poetry for Wyvern Lit. A bibliography of her published writing lives here.

Review of “Trigger Warning” by Neil Gaiman

trigger-warning

With Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning: Short Stories and Disturbances, the author has given us an assorted collection of short stories with a dabble of poetry. In this collection of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, you can learn about a mysterious American traveler who visits a quaint English town with dark secrets, solve a peculiar mystery with Sherlock Holmes, meet an odd man who claims to have uninvented the jetpack, and even defeat aliens with the eleventh Doctor.

Neil Gaiman is a New York Times #1 bestselling author who has written wide range of books for children and for adults. This collection of short stories is the third published by Gaiman, following Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illustrations (1998) and Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders (2006). Considering how well these past collections were received and how well I believe this one did, Trigger Warning very likely won’t be the last of them.

Gaiman starts off the book with a lengthy preface giving details as to why he choose the title and the meaning and origin behind each story. The use of the phrase “trigger warning” is not quite of traditional usage. Normally this term is used to warn against potentially disturbing context of a writing or a video for people that have experience related trauma. As Gaiman explains, “trigger warning” in this case refers to “images or words or ideas that…[throw] us out of our safe, sane world.” That was one of his goals with putting together this collection, to bring us readers out of our comfort zones and into the deep and dark world of his wonderful, yet twisted imagination. The trigger warning isn’t meant for specified people, it’s meant for all of us because we all have a trigger. After explaining the title meaning, Gaiman goes on to describe in either brief or extended detail as to why each of these stories and poems exist. For example, “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” was written as a ninetieth birthday present for none other than Ray Bradbury, a writer who Gaiman admires. “The Thing about Cassandra” was inspired by fourteen-year-old Gaiman’s imaginary girlfriend who he gave life by simply writing her name on various notebooks, much like his character Stuart did. He wrote “Adventure Story” for a radio show This American Life, though the producers ended up not being huge fans of it, and because he’d been “thinking a lot about death” and how when people die they “take their stories with them.”

While I enjoyed getting to know further detail about each story than is normally given, I’m not sure the preface was the best placement of them. I felt obligated to go through and read about each story before starting them which took away, only slightly, from the magic of blindly discovering excellent short stories within a collection. I found myself turning back to the beginning to read some of the explanations again once finishing the stories.

Gaiman plays with format in many of his stories, the most noticeable being “Orange.” Under the title of the story there is a note which states “(Third Subject’s Responses to Investigator’s Written Questionnaire.) EYES ONLY.” The story is written as a numbered list of answers without the questions that prompted them and yet, it is still easy for the readers to completely grasp the story because where there are vague answers such as “several times a day” there are more descriptive answers such as the description of where the narrator found “an empty jam jar” under her sister Nerys’s window. This story with the odd format ended up being one of my personal favorites in the collection due to the amazing and interesting way it was told through only a long list. The best part was that the narrator almost seemed bored as she was answering the questions about her sister turning into an entity known as “Her Immanence.” Another story that was interesting format was “A Calendar of Tales” which combined 12 short stories into one, each story representing a month of the year. Every small story within this larger one was written expertly, however each of them ended on a cliffhanger that left me gripping to the last sentence hoping the next story would expand upon the previous one. They never did.

Gaiman did a wonderful job of creating twenty-four (well, actually thirty-five considering “A Calendar of Tales”) different worlds with spectacular imagery which assists the readers in truly experiencing the stories. In “Down to a Sunless Sea,” Gaiman introduces a woman who “does not appear to care about the rain” by writing the story in second person telling us that we “want to pull [a bone necklace] from her neck, to toss it into the river for the mudlarks to find or to lose.” Some of the other worlds presented to the readers were familiar, at least in my case, as I got to visit London and India with the famous Sherlock Holmes in “A Case of Death and Honey,” a story which reimagined the reason he has been a character who has been revived many times since his original death by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1893. I also got to travel to the year 1984 with the eleventh Doctor and his companion Amy, and being a huge Doctor Who fan myself, I enjoyed getting to be with those characters again on a new adventure. I also got to visit worlds that were familiar, but not quite the ones I knew. In “The Sleeper and the Spindle,” we learn about a different version of sleeping beauty with another fairytale princess, now queen, being the fierce heroine of the story.

Being that Neil Gaiman is a spectacular writer, all of his stories and poems, at least in this collection, are written to represent that. While not all of these stories may immediately seem enchanting, they are well worth the read. The fun thing about short story collections is that there is no necessity to read each story in the order that they are printed. You can read the stories front to back, back to front, or in any order that pleases you. You can even go back and reread your favorites, as I did. If you’re looking for creative intelligence that fuels a random assortment of fun, creepy, and interesting stories, this is the book for you.


neil-gaiman-3-smAbout the Author: Neil Gaiman was born in Hampshire, UK, and now lives in the United States near Minneapolis. As a child he discovered his love of books, reading, and stories, devouring the works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, James Branch Cabell, Edgar Allan Poe, Michael Moorcock, Ursula K. LeGuin, Gene Wolfe, and G.K. Chesterton. A self-described “feral child who was raised in libraries,” Gaiman credits librarians with fostering a life-long love of reading: “I wouldn’t be who I am without libraries. I was the sort of kid who devoured books, and my happiest times as a boy were when I persuaded my parents to drop me off in the local library on their way to work, and I spent the day there. I discovered that librarians actually want to help you: they taught me about interlibrary loans.”


About the Author of this Post: Kate Haley is a sophomore at North Central College where she studies English Writing and Organizational Communication. When she is not spouting off random facts about anything and everything, she fills her time with reading copious amounts of books and writing novels that will hopefully become best-sellers (or at the best, sellers).

Review of “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng

everythinginevertoldyou-celestengEverything I Never Told You is a tale of a Chinese-American family in a time when diversity was constantly frowned upon. Set in the 1970’s, the Lee’s, a family of five, struggle to understand each other. They also struggled to fit into a world that didn’t understand them. The father, James, is of Chinese heritage, while his wife, Marilyn, is white. Their three children stand out as Chinese-Americans in an all white school. They kept one too many secrets from each other and in the end it caused their middle child Lydia her life. Ng uses this novel to explore the pressures with which parents weigh their children down, not even knowing they are doing so. Ng writes, “How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers” (Ng 25). This novel beautifully captured the terrors secrets can keep and just what happens when the web of lies begins to unravel; slipping like water through your fingers so quickly you never even understood how you could possibly have held it all in.

Through a stunning display of multiple point of views, Ng smoothly navigates from one character to the next, letting each story play out until all the secrets the family tried so desperately to keep are brought to light. By switching points of view the reader can hear the distinctive voice of the mother, the father, Nath, Hannah, and Lydia herself as the reader learns what they never told each other, making the title of the book a clever one.

Normally a common fault with some novels is not holding the reader’s attention. Ng does not make this mistake. The novel captured my attention right from the start and kept me guessing all the way up until the final word had been read. The text itself has a dazzling introductory line when Ng writes, “Lydia is dead. But they do not know this yet” (Ng 1). The mystery of Lydia’s death had me guessing the entire time. How did this happen? Why did this happen?  One thing I really enjoyed of this novel was how each character was guilty, because at some point they all lied. One example of Nath’s lies is when he said, “All Nath would know, for sure, was this: he pushed Lydia into the water” (Ng 154). It really captured through the characters and family dynamic how many secrets we keep and how many lies we tell to ourselves.

This is a great read for those who have suffered similar pressures of the family dynamic, and who want a read that will keep you captured from beginning to end. It was thoroughly enjoyable and will hold its readers captive from the first to last sentence. If you are looking for a quick and enjoyable read that runs your emotions all over like a rollercoaster then crack open this book and find out just what really happened to Lydia.


celeste-ngAbout the Author: Celeste Ng Celeste Ng is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts (It’s pronounced “-ing.”) Her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, has won multiple awards and was a New York Times bestseller, Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014, and on the Best Book of the Year lists of over a dozen outletsHer second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, will be published in Fall 2017.

Review of “Dynamite” by Anders Carlson-Wee

dynamiteWithin the pages of “Dynamite,” the reader will find a collection of poems that explode with emotion as Anders Carlson-Wee’s speaker experiences love and loss off and on the streets of America.
The first poem in Carlson-Wee’s chapbook is titled, “Dynamite” and speaks of a childhood game he and his brother used to play, where everything they threw at each other was dynamite. They would hurl everything from pine cones to choke-chains at each other until they were bruised and bloody. He ends this poem by saying:

I say a hammer isn’t dynamite.

He reminds me everything is dynamite.

Carlson-Wee turns this last stanza into the thesis of his chapbook, showing his readers through a series of poems that every encounter in one’s life leaves a lasting impact. Carlson-Wee backs up his claim by writing about everything as common as a photograph, to something as catastrophic as a flood and showing readers how each instance affected his life.

These pages are filled with the skeletons of those long ago lost, but not forgotten. Carlson-Wee writes as though their ghosts are whispering in his ear; his words occupy a space somewhere between reality and those he has lost. Carlson-Wee writes about the nursing home he grew up visiting his grandmother at but now, years after her passing, as he hitchhikes down Country 19, he can’t help but feel drawn to the lot where the nursing home once stood:

The woman asks me where I’m going

And I say as far as you can take me,

But as we pass the old folks home, I tell her to pull over.

He organizes his poems to tell a story. Each poem is plucked from the days Carlson-Wee spent hitchhiking or bumming rides on freight cars and is filled with the people or places he met on his journey. By the time readers reach the final destination, they will know every screw, every rail, and every nail that built the track of Carlson-Wee’s journey and where it lead him to”

It’s not about suffering. It’s not about fear.

We must peer out the *owl’s eye.

—from “Riding the Owl’s Eye”

Carlson-Wee swings from word to word, doing the poetic monkey bars; every word and phrase has a purpose and is connected, such that each poem hits the reader like a stick of dynamite.

 

*”circular hole on the porch of a Canadian Grainer train car, in which a train hopper car can ride in concealment” (Carlson-Wee 27)


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About the Author: Anders Carlson-Wee is a 2015 NEA Fellow and 2015 Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. His work has appeared in Narrative, New England Review, The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, Blackbird, Best New Poets, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading series. Winner of Ninth Letter’s Poetry Award and New Delta Review’s Editors’ Choice Prize, he holds an MFA in poetry from Vanderbilt University.

“Find Me” by Laura van den Berg

laura_van_den_berg_2015Ever been at a point in your life, wondering where you belong? Ever feel like you have no place in this world, that you’re just drifting through life on autopilot? This is how nineteen-year-old Joy Jones has spent her life. Abandoned as in infant on the steps of a hospital, Joy had spent the her childhood and teens in group and foster homes, haunted by the constant feeling of unwantedness until she aged out of the system. She spends her days working a graveyard shift at a Stop & Shop, nursing an addiction to Robitussin, in hopes of keeping the memories of her troubled past at bay. She lives alone in a basement of an apartment building that has no windows, stating that her apartment is “like a tomb, the door a seal-would I ever get out?” As Joy questions the meaning of her existence, a sickness threatens to ravage the United States. With no official name, “the sickness” is a disease that causes individuals to suffer silver sores, memory loss and immediate death. One day, Joy is approached by a man in a hazmat suit, who invites her to join a program at the Hospital to find a cure for “the sickness”-as Joy discovers that she is immune to the disease. While she and seventy-three others are subjected to questionable treatments, she forms fragile bonds with some of the patients (like her roommate, Louis and the twins Christopher and Sam). As winter approaches, Joy breaks free and sets on a journey to find her birth mother, unknowingly unlocking the secrets to her past that she tried so desperately to hide, while also finding meaning in her life and what it means to love someone unconditionally.

I found “Find Me” to be a very compelling and unique read. Van den Berg is widely known for her short story works (“Isle of Youth” and “What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leave Us”), so for this to be her first attempt at writing a novel, I give it a three out of five stars.

First, the novel is split into two journeys: we begin with the Hospital where Joy is being held. She narrates her experience there, as well as recalls her life before the Hospital in (mostly) innate detail. The second half, Joy makes a cross-country trek to California to confront the mother she never knew, chronicling her trials and tribulations as well as discovering her self-worth. I liked how the author establishes the character (Joy) very well throughout the novel. Her voice can be heard clearly; it was like she was speaking directly to me because Joy was speaking, not only to herself but to someone who was willing to listen. For example: “I got on the wrong bus. I was not awake and not asleep and when I looked out the window, I was in Kendall Square. The bus stopped. I got out. The sky was a bruise. I was unsure of the time.” Joy’s attention to every detail pertains the theme that memory serves in the novel, particularly the first part when she is in the Hospital.

Unfortunately, this theme sort of dies down once she leaves the Hospital, causing the novel to lose some of its drive. The whole sickness is revolved around the recurring theme of memory, so it was disappointing when van den Berg strayed from it. I also noticed the novel tends to drag on a bit. Parts becomes stagnant when Joy is on the road (jumping from bus to bus, suddenly running into a childhood friend, getting trapped in a “haunted house”).

Some readers may find the narration a bit confusing and strange; Joy often goes off on tangents (habits of listing things off to prove that she’s not sick) and the narration often jumps back and forth between the past and the present, such when she is talking about “the sickness” and then switches to her childhood (the past): “Experts now say that the toll could be worse than the 1918 influenza, which left half a million Americans dead…. When I was a child, I lived for a time with a boy I grew to love.” Even though it might perplex a few readers at first, the author’s grammar and cues in the book helped establish the sudden switch.

All in all, I’d give this novel a three out of five for its unique take on a post-apocalyptic America with a female lead that struggles to find her worth in a world that is struggling to put itself back together.


About the Author: Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida and earned her M.F.A. at Emerson College. Her first novel, Find Me, published by FSG in 2015, was selected as a “Best Book of 2015” by NPR, Time Out New York, and BuzzFeed, among others, in addition to being longlisted for the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize.


About the Author of this Post: Tiara Hawkins

Review of “Manual for Cleaning Ladies” by Lucia Berlin

a-manual-for-cleaning-ladies

In Lucia Berlin’s collection of short stories, A Manual for Cleaning Ladies, takes you everywhere – from Mexico to Colorado, Texas to Chile. This seems fitting, considering Berlin herself jumped from place to place throughout her life. Berlin is known for having based the stories off of her own life, almost to the point of considering them autobiographical and not fiction, and this book of short stories shows that this is true of her writing. The stories are almost always focused on single, divorced women or young girls struggling through the different situations life throws at us and you can’t help but notice that the characters have recurring thoughts, actions, and surroundings. Characters also reappear throughout different stories and the main characters all maintain a very similar persona, which reinforces the feeling that they are all about the author herself. With the rawness and detail that she uses in writing a variety of experiences, Berlin must have lived a thousand lives in order to tell these tales so accurately.

Berlin writes elegantly, but it is what she writes about that keeps a reader engaged. She is unflinching in describing situations that would make many readers uncomfortable – a young girl pulling the teeth from her grandfather, an alcoholic crawling to the store for a fix, a woman preparing to get an abortion. Berlin does not back down from writing about difficult or gruesome subjects; her stories thrive on them. She turns the disturbing into a scene you cannot stop reading as when the main character in “Dr. H.A. Moynihan” describes her grandfather after all his teeth have been self-removed. “Without any teeth, his face was like a skull, white bones above the vivid bloody throat. Scary monster, a teapot come alive, yellow and black Lipton tags dangling like parade decorations.” When Berlin tells the story of an alcoholic mother, the woman’s gradual transformation from a barely functioning human to a halfway decent parent sneaks up on the reader, showing how a drink can be the normalizing element for an alcoholic.

And she is not only a powerful writer, but a funny one (granted, the humor is dark in most cases). In one story, she writes of her mother and sister and the ofrendas — a collection of items to welcome the deceased to the afterlife — that accompany them in death. On her mother’s ofrenda, the main character writes that there are “sleeping pills and guns and knives, since she was always killing herself. No noose…she said she couldn’t get the hang of it.” Although you don’t want to, you cannot help but laugh at the obvious joke. In another story, she makes a blatant pun about a character’s mistreatment of a police officer when drunk. “I owe Wong one [an apology]. I wronged Wong for sure.”

Berlin’s stories leave the reader wanting more, but shortening the collection could have made for a greater impact. By the end of the 43 short stories, readers could be burnt out from the onslaught of emotions that they produce. Omitting the less powerful stories would allow for some breathing room for the readers, letting them digest the message of each story individually rather than piling them on until they cannot make sense of how they feel.

However, the conclusion of the book is the most impactful. The final story “Homing” follows an older, sick woman who seems to be nearing death. She is reflecting on her past as she studies the crows that inhabit the maple in tree in her yard. As she recalls events in her life, she imagines the alternative paths her life might have taken if she had chosen differently, if an earthquake had hit, if she had married someone else. Some of the imagined events connect to stories from earlier in the book, making it seem as though this woman is the narrator from all of them and the reader has become a character in her story. In closing, she decides that whether she had chosen differently or not, “my life would have ended exactly as it has now, under the limestone rocks of Dakota Ridge, with crows.”

The reader can’t help but agree.


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About the Author: Lucia Berlin (1936-2004, pronunciation: Lu-see-a) published 77 short stories during her lifetime. Most, but not all, were collected in three volumes from Black Sparrow Press: Homesick (1991), So Long (1993), and Where I Live Now (1999). These gathered from previous collections of 1980, 1984, and 1987, and presented newer work.


About the Author of this Post: Michaela Daly is a junior at North Central College and is majoring in English and Journalism. She enjoys short walks to the couch and refrigerator, and all potato-based foods.