Getting Shit Done

And so I have. I know we still have Covid-19 but it feels like it is has been pushed away somehow. So no more plague diaries. Time to talk about what I’ve been doing. And that’s getting shit done.

bookcaseFirstly, my bookcase. It took a six hour trip to Miami (most of it was waiting for the email to come to tell me my order was ready at IKEA) and then a quick assembly. (I’ve put this particular bookcase together four times now.) I should get some sort of medal, I believe. I’m fast. And then I had the pleasure of putting out all my books and stuff and things.

 

It’s a little crowded, and please don’t look at the ratty old carpet. But my stuff is right at my bedside where I can see it every day now.

Between that and the mosaic studio (which I’m going to get to in a minute) I reorganized my closet. I got new shoe racks, new shelf dividers, and everything is so damn neat and tidy I get a zing of pleasure just opening the doors.

But the mosaic studio. I set it up last weekend. It took about a minute and a half:

mosaic studio

See? It isn’t much, but it is a place for me to work with glass and not get shards all over our floor. I’ve got that project you see there, plus two new ones I am working on. I sit and listen to podcasts while I work. My favorite right now is the Moth Radio Hour. I could listen to people tell stories all day.

So now I have a new outlet for creativity and get to reacquaint myself with some old skills.

I’ve bought some new glass and have a few new ideas in mind. I’d love to do a really big project someday. My ex-sister-in-law mosaicked a toilet. It was pretty charming. She put plants in the bowl, but the neighborhood association was less thrilled with her artistic endeavors and made her move it to her back yard.

dolphin socksWhen I was cleaning out my closet I found a canvas bag that had knitting in it. Inside was an almost completed pair of socks for my husband. It took me two hours to finish them. We call them his Miami Dolphin socks. Again, please ignore the ratty carpeting. We’ll be remodeling within a year or so and getting laminate floors. Please.

That pattern on those socks is the bomb, though, don’t you think?

And finally, the BIG NEWS. I am getting ready to query a novel. I have been waiting for one agent to get back to me for over six months and I’m done with the agonizing. I am sending it out TONIGHT! I’m going to be 46 in August. It’s time my writing career as a published novelist was started.

That’s right. I’m getting shit done. And it feels damn good.

Looking Forward

It’s the end of the decade and the beginning of the twenties. I wonder if these will roar as loudly as the previous twenties did. And if not, what will they do? Are we about to enter the Exploding Twenties? The Whimpering Twenties? We’ve just been through the Dumpster Fire Teens, at least where politics is concerned.

Ahem. No politics, Anna.

This is a time of year, that nebulous, hazy time between Christmas and New Year’s, when people take stock of things. What have I accomplished in the past year? In the past decade? In my life? What do I want to do next?

I am of two minds about this practice. While I always think it is a good idea to write down your goals–it makes them permanent–I’m not always sure doing it this time of year is the best. We go into January with giant expectations of ourselves. For instance, I could say that I want to lose fifty pounds, learn Greek and Norwegian, start and Etsy business, Marie Kondo my house, and land myself a literary agent.

But I am sure I would only end up in a tepid teacup of bitter disappointment. The expectations we place on ourselves probably aren’t unattainable. I mean, I could do all those things above, but would it make me happy?

Probably not. Sure, I would have a huge sense of accomplishment, but I think I’m starting from the wrong angle. Instead of thinking about correcting my deficiencies (for example, my shameful monolingual-ism or my cluttered bedroom), maybe I should think of things that I know would make me happy and start there, working backwards to it.

Maybe we need to focus less on what we should be doing, and concentrate on the things that make us happy. Unless you’re a serial killer, of course.

On March 31, 2010, at approximately 4:45 pm I was hit with the bolt of inspiration that led me to write my first novel. I’d always thought of myself as a “writer” before then, even though I had only written a few short stories and some terrible poetry in college. But that day I was researching Greek mythology and I came up with the idea of writing a modern day take on the muses.

I confess, I might have been doing this at the end of my work day (Shame! Shame!) But at 5 pm I had a vague idea of where I wanted to go with the story and I roughed it out with my husband as we went for a walk after work. I was frolicking in circles around him, I was so excited.

I wrote the first draft in twelve weeks. I remember bursting into tears right after writing “the end” at the bottom of the page. Even though I wasn’t published, I had the chops to finish a novel! I really was a writer.

Since then I have worked very hard at my writing. I did my homework about the publishing industry and sent out queries to literary agents. I slaved over that first query letter. Every word was lovingly selected and combined into what I thought was a sculpted thing of beauty. I got a few nibbles, agents asking to see more than the initial pages I had sent out. But no one took the worm and pulled.

I did not give up. I thought the first novel might work better as a young adult story so I rewrote it completely. I queried again. Several agents asked to see the whole thing, but ultimately, I once again did not find someone to represent me.

I did not give up. I wrote a new book. This one was a young adult historical thriller set in Tudor England that is very dear to me. My wonderful husband, who is also my first-line editor, worked with me every night after work to hone that manuscript until it sparkled like a gem. (Let’s go with rubies, I really love rubies.)

I sent it out to agents starting in February of 2015. I got lots of positive responses, but still no takers. But then, after about 140 rejections, at the end of July, a brand-new agent from a huge agency in New York wrote to me to say he was head-over-heels in love with my book. I remember opening that email. It was on a Friday afternoon that I was off work.

I shrieked. My husband came running in from the other room. All I could do was put a hand over my mouth and point at the screen. I moved so he could sit and read. By the time he was done I was on the floor, on my hands and knees, and pounding the rug. (This is not a euphemism.) I was screaming and crying and filled with joy.

I had found an agent! Within a couple weeks I signed a contract and we started getting the manuscript in shape to send it to editors.

EDITORS. People who publish books. I had made the next rung on the ladder!

We queried editors until Christmas. Many were extremely favorable about the book but ultimately it came down to one thing: young adult historical is extremely hard to get past a sales team. I had many interested, but no takers.

And if you think that it stings less when an editor says no, you’re so wrong. It hurts like a motherfucker.

Finally, my agent had to break it to me that we had to shelve this book because there was no one left to send it to. I was devastated. I loved that book with everything I had.

I did not give up. I did my homework. I went out and grabbed up YA historical new releases and gobbled them down. It seemed that all the YA historical fiction that was being published (and still is) has some sort of fantasy element to it.

I wrote my third novel, another YA historical thriller with a fantasy element. I had a ridiculous amount of fun writing it. My agent said he was very excited to take it out to the editors. We sent it out. And once again we did not succeed in snaring an editor’s attention. The reason? There were too many YA fantasies out there right now and mine would just get lost in the mix.

I pounded my head on my desk. I wept. I felt like shit for quite a while.

In fact, about this time my mother’s health began to fail in earnest and 2018 was filled with me watching her die and then grieving for her. I did not write. I didn’t even read. I couldn’t. But there was that spark in me, that one that loved the process of crafting stories that wouldn’t be quenched.

But my contract with my agent expired and he did not offer to renew. I was heartbroken that I hadn’t had success when it had been at the tips of my fingers.

I did not give up.

In 2019 I started to come out of the well. I started by writing some flash fiction. I wrote a few short stories. I wrote a non-fiction piece about anxiety. And lo, when I sent some of these out, they were published! I had a flash piece called “Teeth” in Everyday Fiction. My essay on anxiety ended up in Vamp Cat Magazine. And two more flash pieces ended up printed in The Mangrove Review.

I went to The Mangrove Review launch party. I gave a reading. I LOVED it. I’m not just a writer, it turns out I’m an excellent public speaker too. I read with inflection. I crack jokes. Dammit, I’m witty.

I went back to a novel I had been thinking about since I was an undergrad taking art history. There is a famous Renaissance painter named Fra Filippo Lippi who was a monk. He used a young nun as a model for the Virgin Mary and ended up falling in love with her kidnapping her, and spiriting her away from the convent. You can’t make that shit up.

Or can you? I took that seed of an idea and started working on my fourth novel: a paranormal thriller set in Italy in the 1400s and present day. This one is for the adult market. I have it on good authority that the adult historical fiction market is hot.

While I’ve been working on this novel I’ve built an acquaintance with a literary agent. He has been very kind and given me good advice.  I sent him my second novel at the end of October and he responded with delight. He is a great agent: he started as an editor and now has a cadre of talent all over the spectrum. He’s seen all sides of the industry and really knows his stuff.

I know there’s no guarantee he’s going to take me. It isn’t his job to take me on because he likes me. He has to love my writing. But I have the talent and the drive. If he doesn’t take me I’ll keep going until I find someone that will.

I will not give up.

So to go back to the beginning, what am I expecting of myself in 2020 and beyond? I’m going to say “fuck you” to the resolutions and keep doing what makes me happy. That is writing. And even if I never get anything published, I will have had a satisfactory career as a writer. Because I love it.

We’re Back in the Saddle Again

Good old Gene Autry. He wrote the song about being back out on the range, toting his old ’44 and feeling at home. When I set out to write this I just conjured the line of the chorus without really considering the rest of the lyrics, but I find that they mean something more than being back in one’s old routine.

I`m back in the saddle again
Out where a friend is a friend
Where the longhorn cattle feed
On the lowly gypsum weed
Back in the saddle again
Ridin` the range once more
Totin` my old .44
Where you sleep out every night
And the only law is right
Back in the saddle again
Whoopi-ty-aye-oh
Rockin` to and fro
back in the saddle again
Whoopi-ty-aye-yay
I go my way
Back in the saddle again
It’s more than doing something familiar. It’s about being in a place that is comfortable, that suits a person right down to the blood marrow. Every person is different when it comes to their saddle. Some people never discover what theirs is, and for those I feel the most sorrow, for there is something so satisfying at being in a place that brings you quiet joy.
For me, it’s writing.
The Abduction of Audrey Bettencourt is currently out on submission to editors in New York. It is a thrilling and terrifying prospect all at once that chips away at my concentration on everything. My brain is always half somewhere else, wondering, hoping, and wishing for the best news possible.
To distract myself I have started a new novel. I won’t tell you about it yet because the idea is still just a seed and I need to work things out before I start yammering about it to the world. But this is exactly what I need. Writing is being in the saddle for me. It is a place so familiar and sweet that it calms and energizes me at the same time. I can throw my entire brain at it and be absorbed completely, no fretting about what may or may not happen in other arenas of life.
So I am going to dive head first into a new project and give it all my attention. What may come with Audrey will happen in its own time. Don’t get me wrong, I will be out of my mind with happiness if it sells. But in the meantime I am going to do what I love most.
Whoopi-ty-aye-yay.

Taking Stock

Checklist and a pencil

As 2016 draws to a close I think a lot of us take this time to reflect upon what we accomplished in the past year.  I know this was a tough year for a lot of folks, especially those of Generation X, who lost a lot of icons this year like David Bowie, Prince, George Michael and Carrie Fisher. We knew Bowie was battling cancer so it wasn’t a true shock when he passed, but the other three? Oy. Having grown up in the Minneapolis area, Prince was especially a knife to the heart. I think of all the amazing things he never got to accomplish because he died too soon.

And then of course was the election. I’m not one to talk about my political opinions in public, but I will say I have never seen such an ugly, divisive battle. It was truly heinous to watch. Although not having broadcast TV spared me from the political ads. I wish I could say I was hopeful but I have real concerns about the future of this country and the world.

However, I think it is wrong to say that 2016 was a dumpster fire of a year. On a personal level I had some really good things happen. I finished the first draft of my third novel. Now in 2017 I will begin the revision process and I hope to have something ready to go for my agent in the next few months.

I also had a revitalization at work. I’m not going to lie, I’ve been a Reference Librarian for nearly fourteen years and working with the public has begun to wear me out. But I found a new project on which to work that has me extremely excited. I’m pitching the idea to my director a week from today. If I have her blessing I’ll share more about it then.

I took an amazing trip this summer with my husband. We saw Austria, Germany, and France, spent time with great friends, and drank lots of good beer. We nearly killed ourselves on the 700 steps inside an ice cave, visited the crypt at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, saw Mozart’s birthplace, took the Nightwatchman’s tour in Rothenberg, drank schnapps, saw the graves of Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine, toured Brittany, and climbed to the top of the world at Mont St. Michel.

Some not so great things happened as well. My Dad had triple bypass surgery while we were on vacation. Thankfully Pop has made a full recovery and is doing very well. Mom is still struggling with her health and there isn’t much hope for improvement. Adjustment has been hard for all of us but especially for her. She gets frustrated because she can’t do everything she used to. I can’t blame her, I would go mad.

And of course the biggest hurt this year was that my book didn’t sell. But I am hopeful and excited about my new novel. Think of it as a mashup between Pride and Prejudice and X Men. I’ve had a ridiculous amount of fun writing it and I am looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and digging into revisions. I’m going to start tonight with reading the book through in its entirety and make notes as to what needs attention. Then my husband and I will go through, chapter by chapter and fix things. It’s going to be a long process, but ultimately so rewarding. I’m anxious to get back in the game.

I could never blame a year for being bad. The way I see it, I had another trip around the sun and got to do some amazing things. I look forward to the next year with optimism and hope you do too. No matter our opinion of the state of the world we all need to move forward and make the best of our situations however we can. I hope you’ll join me in celebrating 2017. It’s going to be a great year.

The Joyful Artist

As I’ve been writing the first draft of my new novel I have been having a ridiculously good time. It is so much fun to set my characters up in a world and then throw things at them and see what they do. I have a daily goal for writing: 2000 words a day. For the most part I have kept to that goal. I started writing this book on September 8 and I am maybe now two thirds of the way through. Plot twists! Murder! Romance! Intrigue!

big-magicThis year the most influential book I read was Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. In it she talks about what it is to be an artist (of any kind, really) and how to get around what is blocking you and create without fear. It is an amazing book. What’s more, she does a podcast called Magic Lessons where she talks to ordinary people about their creative process and helps them get around their fears. It is really interesting and much of it I can apply directly to me.

 
Towards the end of the book she writes a lot about trusting your creativity, and the topic of the Tormented Artist came up. Gilbert believes that suffering does not make on a true artist.  She says, “…I do not deny the reality of suffering–not yours, not mine, not humanity’s in general. It is simply that I refuse to fetishize it. I certainly refuse to deliberately seek out suffering in the name of artistic authenticity.”

I used to romanticize the idea of the Tormented Artist when I was younger. I thought that pain could produce something achingly beautiful. Thank God for therapy! Because today I have to tell you that writing and creating in general is one of the biggest joys in my life. I still have to work a full-time job, yes, but I live for the time I carve out for myself where I can create without interruptions. It is as vital to me now as breathing.

Some attribute the following quote to Ernest Hemingway: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” But I wish to remind everyone that yes, he is respected as one of the great writers of the twentieth century, but he also committed suicide. I posit that it is entirely possible to be happy and still produce great work.

Elizabeth Gilbert also reminds us in Big Magic of a quote from Wendell Berry: “To attribute to the Muse a special fondness for pain is to come to close to desiring and cultivating pain.” And in the same breath I quote Yoda: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. ” I know you just read that in his voice, didn’t you? But more importantly, why would you suffer unnecessarily? Because you think you are supposed to?

 
I’m not saying I refuse to suffer pain for the rest of my life. I know there will be times that will be more difficult than others. But I do not have to welcome that pain into my center of creativity. It can visit, but I will not allow it to unpack and make itself at home. Writing is my joy and I will not let it be corrupted.

amplified

 

Never Never Never Give Up

never never never give up

Today is an anniversary for me. One year ago today I spoke on the phone with Alex Slater at Trident Media Group and accepted his offer to represent me as a literary agent.  It had been a phone call that was years in the making: two books, and hundreds of queries later and I had done it. I found someone who was head over heels in love with my novel.

I was ecstatic. I had finally broken through a door on the road to becoming a published author. Many times along that journey I had become discouraged and hurt from all the rejection (trust me, there was A LOT). But there was a fire burning in my heart that kept me going. I love writing. This is what I want TO DO with my life. And of course, I have my husband, my parents, and all of my family and terrific friends who have supported me and bolstered me along they way when I got down. I finally felt I had arrived.

Now, a year later, I am still waiting to arrive. My agent, Alex, has been amazing. With his enthusiasm and drive he has worked so hard to find a home for my novel. He has sent it out to over thirty young adult editors and ten adult editors. And while the reaction has been that it is great writing, it just didn’t find a place for one reason or another. In fact, we are about to shelve this novel and I am going to concentrate on writing my third. (I’m about 40 pages in so far.)

Yes, I did the amazing, almost unheard of feat of finding an agent. But the submission process was no less brutal. True, I do have a champion fighting in my corner, and for that I am so grateful and lucky. But this level of rejection is even worse than trying to find an agent. It’s funny because they don’t even use the word rejection–it’s a “pass.” But that doesn’t make it any easier.

As sad as I am that my novel didn’t sell, that fire still burns within me. As much as I am dragging my ass around and moping today I am still going to get my butt in my chair and write tonight. Winston Churchill might have been rallying a nation to fight the Nazis when he said the above quote, but it can apply to anyone and any situation. I will not give up. I will write another novel and I will try again. And if that doesn’t sell I will try again. This is still what I want to do with my life. That will not change.

I may be bruised and tired. But I will never, never, never give up.

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn by Jo Baker

We’ve been binge-watching the final season of Downton Abbey at home this past weekend. I truly adore that show not just for its historical accuracy and its depiction of the lives of both servant and master, but also because of the amazing costumes and the delicious wit. I will be sad to see the farewell, but I like how they have been setting up things for the finale thus far.

Downton Abbey draws a lot of parallels to the book Longbourn by Jo Baker. It would be easy to say it is the novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen told from the point of view of the servants of the Bennet household. But it is so much more than that. Because the lives of the Bennet sisters hardly signify at all in this narrative, and that is a rather poignant remark on class society.

I read several interviews with Jo Baker on her writing of Longbourn. In one with Hazel Gaynor she says, “But it was on one re-reading of P&P that I just got stuck on a phrase, and couldn’t get past it. It’s the week before the Netherfield ball, it’s been raining for days, the footpaths are awash, the roads are deep in mud, there’s no way the Bennet girls are going to venture forth, and so, ‘The very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.’ I just thought, ‘who’s proxy?’ and everything else followed on from that.”

Indeed! We know the housekeeper’s name is Mrs. Hill, but none of the other servants are named, even though they did a great deal of work behind the scenes. Jo Baker did a marvelous job creating lives and characters out of the unnamed housemaids and footman. In fact, she did an ingenious job of incorporating the two novels so they flow together, with the servants’ stories on top, with a little-noticed undercurrent of the perils and trials of Miss Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters.

I also loved that Baker gives us different perspectives of the characters created fully by Austen. Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins are, in Baker’s eyes, more than just the comic relief. There are reasons their personalities developed they way they did. I found I had new-found sympathy for some characters and less for others I originally liked.

But beyond that is the story itself. Mostly it is told from the point of view of Sarah, the teenage housemaid. An orphan, she has a very comfortable situation for someone who might otherwise have grown up in the poor house. True, her work is exhausting and grueling, but she has food in her belly and a warm bed in which to sleep. For her station in life, she isn’t doing too badly.

What her employers don’t understand, however, is that she has a brain and a heart and desires and wishes for herself. So when a footman from the Bingley household starts paying her attentions, her world is rocked. Not just because she finds him attractive as well, but who on earth has ever paid her a speck of attention before? And just what are the intentions of Ptolemy Bingley, the footman? Is he a Wickham or a Darcy?

I’m a sucker for good historical fiction, and I sucked this one right up. I also learned that the best way to clean hardwood floors is to drop damp tea leaves around and sweep them up. They catch all the dust and hair that are shed without blowing them around. I may have to drink more tea and give that a whirl someday.

 

Blood and Salt by Kim Liggett

Blood and SaltI adore a dark and twisted story. I suppose it started in 6th grade when someone gave me a dog-eared paperback of Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. Today, her name conjures up a very different type of novel, but back then (when they were still  actually written by her) they were perfect for me: narrated by a girl my age, a world that was at once fantastic and realistic, and black as an angsty teenager’s heart.

My parents (and specifically my Mom) never forbade me to read anything. But she was aware of what I was reading and would often read it too and then talk about it with me. Because of this I have always been of the opinion that it doesn’t matter what you read, it is what you take away from it. Yeah, I read a lot of stuff that was adult but I will tell you it never led me to bad behavior because it gave me ideas. I think a lot of it went right over my head anyway.

Kim Liggett came on my radar through Twitter. A few weeks ago Blood and Salt was released and there was a launch party in New York. Jodi Kendall, another author who is represented by my agent (Alex Slater @ Trident Media Group) tweeted pictures from the party, which looked amazing. So the title was in my head and when I was at the bookstore last weekend, I saw it on a table of spooky reads in the YA section, so I bought a copy.

(Can I just make a small digression here? I am so thrilled with the way YA literature has exploded over the past decade. When I was of the age there was very little in that area, hence, me reading V.C. Andrews. But now there is an ENTIRE TABLE of YA books that are just of the creepyspookyscary nature and I think that is outstanding. It appeals directly to the dark side of being a teenager. And let’s be honest, that’s a significant chunk of a teen’s personality, no matter what it’s dressed in.)

But to the book at hand: I loved it. Kim’s writing is lovely, and she doesn’t dance around the edges of darkness–she plunges right in. Ash Larkin and her fraternal twin Rhys live in New York City with their mother. Right from the beginning we realize there is something strange about Ash: she has been seeing the vision of the same dead girl, hanging from her feet and dripping blood, since she was very small. She connects it to the cult her mother escaped as a young woman and she isn’t wrong. When her mother disappears she and her brother head straight for Quivira, hidden on the cornfields of Kansas. From the moment the twins step foot inside the isolated community mystical occurences, unexplained deaths, and deadly whispers from the corn itself surround them. Ash, who has always been the alpha twin, realizes she needs to find out what’s happening fast or risk both of their lives.

But let’s throw some romance into the plot, shall we? Ash has never met a guy who made her feel anything but nausea. But when she clamps eyes on one tall, dark and handsome named Dane, everything changes in a bolt of proverbial lightning. Everyone in the small community is connected by blood, and the connection Ash has to him is a very interesting one indeed.

Kim’s writing is funny and snarky with a uniquely original voice. To give you a taste, here is one of my favorite lines: “I had no idea what my face was doing, but inside it was complete hormonal anarchy.”

See? It’s lines like that which make books worth reading. I hate it when I hear people scoff that YA books aren’t real literature. It’s not just teens who are reading them these days. My reading diet has a steady supply of them and I can say unequivocally that there are some amazing, deep, thought-provoking, adventerous, scary, real books being written for this age group by some very talented writers.

Teens, like any human being, don’t like to be talked down to. They don’t need you to shield them from all the scary things out there in the big bad world. Most likely they have already been acquainted with some of them. Kim Ligget doesn’t hold back when she tells her story, and I am glad for it. Ash’s story is thrilling, scary, and heartbreaking and you really need to read it.

 

Dietland: A Novel by Sarai Walker

dietlandI don’t even really know where to begin with this book review. I have so many emotions upon finishing this novel, and most of them are complex and not easy to articulate.

Good grief, am I writer or not? Like any good book review (or book report, because let’s face it, Mrs. Dietrich, my second grade teacher got me started down this road), I’ll tell you a little about the plot.

Plum Kettle is awkward, shy, and really just wants to be invisible. This is especially hard since she weighs over 300 pounds. She works for a glossy teen magazine, answering the Dear Kitty advice letters sent to the editor-in-chief. Plum works from her laptop at her neighborhood cafe and barely socializes with anyone. She has scheduled a gastric bypass operation and is living a half-life waiting for the thin woman inside to emerge.

A few months before the surgery takes place she notices she’s being followed. An odd girl with bright colored tights and black boots begins to turn up everywhere Plum goes. It’s unnerving for Plum, who only understands that attention=ridicule. The mysterious girl leads her down the proverbial rabbit hole and everything Plum assumes about herself and the world is challenged. At the same time a shadowy force named Jennifer begins a worldwide assault on men who objectify and degrade women.

This last bit had me feeling more than a little euphoric (and a bit guilty about it). I see every day the way the world still belongs to men and how women still fight for equality. I hate that feminist is seen as a dirty word. In my opinion it feminist means that I want to be seen as a human being and not a pair of tits. Obviously the author was not suggesting we wage a guerrilla war on men–she is making a point.

Sarai Walker really puts the inequalities in your face, from fashion magazines to pornography. She is unflinching and unapologetic of her descriptions of their graphic, brutal nature. But in being so blunt, she offers this about sexual objectification of women: “You need to face it… too many women look away… they close their eyes.”

This is a valid point. While women have made tremendous strides towards equality we still aren’t truly free. Sure we can vote, join the military, and pretty much work in any field we choose. (At least in this country.) But there is a billion dollar beauty industry that has women sold on what we need to wear, how we should look, and what is appropriate behavior. Men and women hold women to a higher standard–it is much less acceptable for a woman to be fat, hairy, or god forbid, bald. And if she expresses an opinion that isn’t popular? Good heavens, we need to crucify the bitch. True, these standards have been ubiquitous since the dawn of patriarchal society, but it’s the pink, bedazzled elephant in the corner wearing the stilettos and g-string that no one mentions.

And yet I am conflicted because humans also gravitate towards beauty. Is it wrong to take delight in something that pleases the eye? Am I a bad feminist because I love my Kate Spade sunglasses and getting pedicures? I think the point here is that we put too much value on the beautiful and the current ideal and not enough on people as human beings. According to the nearest fashion magazine I am not nearly thin enough, I don’t wear enough makeup or heels, and I am not hairless as a Barbie doll.

But how do we separate the two? Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living, but focusing on one specific kind of beauty sets us up to fail. It’s easy to end with platitudes like “be kind to others,” and “look beyond the surface.” I certainly don’t follow those every day. I make unfair judgments all too often. Perhaps being mindful as we move forward is the key.

I know I don’t address all the points Sarai Walker articulates so beautifully in her book. I apologize if my thoughts are scattered or disjointed. It’s too complex an issue and wrapped in so many conflicting thoughts and feelings.

But that is exactly what a good book is supposed to do–make you think.

You should read it.

Dear Committee Members: A Novel by Julie Schumacher

dear-committee-members

Let me start with this: Dear Committee Members has the best flap copy ever:

“Finally, a novel that puts the ‘pissed’ back in epistolary.”

I hadn’t been aware it had ever been there.  Regardless, this book had me laughing out loud from beginning to end, and squirming at the places in between.

Jay Fitger (who shall be referred to hereafter as Mr. Crankypants) is a Creative Writing professor at a small Midwest college. He is middle-aged, burnt-out, and disillusioned. The English Department is (as per usual) getting the shaft when it comes to funding and office space while the Economics Department is feted royally. His star grad student’s brilliance is being ignored, and his love life is in shambles. Sadly, these last two are the direct result of Mr. Crankypants’ antisocial behavior. It isn’t a coincidence that a porcupine’s ass graces the cover of this book.

The familiarity of the subject matter is given a fresh look through it’s delivery–the entire thing is written in the format of letters of recommendation (LOR). Anyone who has spent time in higher education (whether as professor or student) is aware of the ubiquitous nature of the LOR. Julie wrote a sassy article about it for the Chronicle of Higher Education. In this article she demonstrates the declining usefulness of these letters, even pointing out that she has on more than one  occasion received and opened a LOR she herself had written.

Julie quite remarkably uses a series of LORs to give a view into the frustrations and absurdities of Mr. Crankypants’ life in academia. If it weren’t so funny it would be quite sad. Especially considering that most of the time (I suspect) LORs often go unread. They are a requirement for grad school and often first jobs, but the formulaic nature of such things leaves little room for creativity or imagination. At least that is what one would expect. Mr. Crankypants puts forth evidence to the contrary.

Julie Schumacher is a Creative Writing professor at the University of Minnesota. She was also my Creative Writing professor way back in 199-none-of-your-business. She dedicated this book to her students, which makes me feel a little better since I am 99% sure she wrote me a letter of recommendation once. Hence, all the squirming.

Now that I think about it, this whole review is an LOR of sorts, isn’t it?

Rock on, Julie!