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Poet Sharon Bryan at Valparaiso University

6 Sep

While off topic, I’d like to plug an upcoming reading at Valparaiso University by poet and essayist Sharon Bryan. Bryan’s reading is part of Valpo’s Wordfest, which sponsors literary events throughout the year. The reading is at 6:30 pm on Wednesday, September 14th, in the Mueller Hall Commons. Here’s a campus map.

Here’s a little info about the poet:

“Sharon Bryan is a nationally recognized award-winning poet and editor. Her most recent collection, Sharp Stars (BOA, 2009), was awarded the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award for 2009. She is also the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize, the Discovery Prize awarded by The Nation, and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as other literary prizes. She has published three previous poetry collections, Salt Air and Objects of Affection, both with Wesleyan University Press, and Flying Blind with Sarabande Books. She is the co-editor of Planet on the Table: Poets on the Reading Life (Sarabande), and the editor of Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition (Norton). Additionally, she has held positions as poet-in-residence and visiting professor at more than 20 colleges and universities, and is currently the Visiting Professor of Poetry at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, in Storrs, Connecticut.”

Note: changed location of reading.

The Second Lull

7 Jul

It’s been too long since I posted, and for that I apologize. It actually took me a week or two to work the bad taste out of my mouth after my last entry. It can be hard to keep up a positive vibe in the face of relentless ickiness, but I’m committed to trying. Nonetheless, no recent pop culture happenings have inspired me to wax rhapsodic. I haven’t even seen Bridesmaids yet. I know, bad feminist blogger.

I do have a couple of interesting projects in the pipeline, though. One is a piece on women who love Sherlock Holmes – not just the pretty, pretty actors who portray the character, but the Arthur Conan Doyle books and stories, the countless pastiches, and the many filmed versions of all those stories. Female Sherlockians have traditionally been thin on the ground, but thanks to the Internet a whole new force is blooming.

I also have a piece on the legacy of Harry Potter. By way of foreshadowing, I give you an image from Barnes & Noble’s midnight release party for Deathly Hallows: a young girl, about ten, holding a freshly-purchased, 759-page, hardcover book aloft like a trophy, shouting “Yes!” *English teacher swoon* Let’s talk about the girls, shall we? (Once I finish sobbing over the final film.)

See you next week.

Feminism Matters

21 Jun

It’s been a bummer week to be a feminist and I’m feeling bruised. I’m generally pretty upbeat, but yesterday I hit the sexism saturation point and just bottomed out. No amount of exercise, children’s television, or conversations with the very sensible and decidedly feminist Mr. Irises seemed to help me shake the feeling that the world was sliming me — and not just me, but women in general. Now, I know I promised to keep the blog positive, but I just need to share a few of the most frustrating examples of misogyny from last week:

1. Planned Parenthood of Indiana has run out of money and needs to close temporarily while they wait on a judge to rule on an injunction against HEA 1210 — an Indiana law which defunds Planned Parenthood entirely because it provides abortions. This means, of course, no health care for thousands and thousands of low-income women: no pap smears, no HIV testing, no breast exams, no birth control, etc.

2. This article on Smartly.com, a site I have previously contributed to. Here, Rob LaGrone defends the perpetrators of sexual assault at the infamous Tailhook Convention and takes part in some rather-breathtaking victim blaming. Try to hold down your lunch as you read, and be sure to read the PBS write up on the convention and the scandal. It’s hard to feel sorry for the poor aviators when you consider the experiences of 83 molested women and Ms. Coughlin fleeing “the gauntlet” with her clothes half-ripped off and officers chasing her.

3. Scott Adams arguing that rape is just part of men’s virile nature. “If a lion and a zebra show up at the same watering hole, and the lion kills the zebra, whose fault is that? Maybe you say the lion is at fault for doing the killing. Maybe you say the zebra should have chosen a safer watering hole.” Maybe you say the ignorant cartoonist better put a sock in it before his career is in shreds. After reading Adams’s post, be sure to sign this petition demanding he apologize.

4. Finally, there’s been a bevy of debate this week about geek girl culture and whether geek men can be as misogynist as anyone else (guess what, they can be.) On the Huffington Post, Elizabeth Perle laments the lack of social resources for girl geeks, and the comments are so hostile it’s laughable. The women organizing GirlGeekCon posted the article for discussion on facebook and, again, the comments are indicative.

And heavens, these are just a sampling. It’s days like this I worry about raising a daughter.

But… that said, there are some glimmers of hope — GirlGeekCon, for example, and this list of Feminist YA books on Goodreads (I just finished The Hunger Games. Feel free to friend my Goodreads account, if you’re so inclined.)

I realized that just writing this little blog isn’t enough for me right now. Time to do some organizing. A friend and I are talking about what to do next, and I’ll keep you up to date as we get the details worked out. If you have any inspiration or interest in this, let me know.

New Writer Crushes

16 Jun


The Summer issue of Midwestern Gothic is due out in a few weeks. I’ve seen a preview, and it’s fantastic. They kindly published a poem of mine, but even better than that, I now have a slew of new Writer Crushes. It’s true I’m pretty easy, but these people rock.

Nina Badzin is a writer, momma and wife, so naturally I enjoy her work. Her blog is beautiful, honest and well-written. May I recommend her post “New Writer Finds Readers”? It’s about resisting lit mag snobbery and having the guts to shoot far and wide. Pretty inspiring.

Chad Simpson is another writer and English prof whose publication list seems to grow daily. He blogs about every angle of the writing life — from idea generation to publication, with teaching and speaking thrown in. Add in his wife Jane Carlson’s frankly stunning photography, and there’s a lot here to admire here.

Nancy Devine is an educator and holy-cow-prolific writer whose blog is packed with personal thoughts, musings on writing, creativity and work, and a blog roll to die for. Her site’s so huge, I’ve seen but a teeny-bit of it, which is good. Lots to explore.

I think I may have an actual crush on Eden Baylee, who writes female-friendly (but by no means soft focus) erotica and erotic romance with originality, creativity and style. Her blog is not exclusively focused on writing erotica (although there’s some of that), but on writing in general with interviews, links and music. It’s an adult site though, so you know, NSFW, but definitely check it out.

I know I have an actual crush on Robert James Russell. (I’m trying to convince myself he’s less compelling in person, like maybe he doesn’t shower much, or hates puppies or something.) Russell co-founded Midwestern Gothic with Jeff Pfaller, and I really, really dig his blog. He edits, writes poetry, fiction and comics, and co-founded the indie comics press Saint James Comics. His blog is eclectic and dorky and funny. Plus he has awesome taste in music.

As I mentioned, Jeff Pfaller co-founded MG with Russell. He is also involved with Saint James Comics, and writes comics and fiction and these funny little “Napkin Haiku Reviews.” Plus he seems to also do design or content (or both) as a day job, which I admire, because if I had a day job, I wouldn’t write a damn thing (see the last 10 years.)

These are just a few of the wonderful writers involved with MG, and I’ll post more links as I make my way through the issue. I hope you’ll check it out when it’s finally available, so you can get all crush-y too.

Two things…

2 Jun

First, Midwestern Gothic has revealed the cover of its summer issue, which will include my poem “Severed Tail,” so you can peek at that and say “Oooh yes…her name is on the cover, along with all those other writers.”

Also Holmes fans, Wessex Press has opened registration for the From Gillette to Brett III conference. They have really exciting speakers lined up, including Nicholas Meyer — author of The Seven Per-Cent Solution, and all-knowing Sherlock scholar Leslie S. Klinger. Parties, screenings, so much more. It fills up quick and there’s not much room at the inn, so to speak, so hurry hurry.

Tina Fey’s Bossypants

31 May

To best enjoy Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants: 1. Have a couple of margaritas. 2. Be a female, 3. aged 40-ish, 4. who’s well-educated and career-minded, 5. with a kid or two. Now, these are general guidelines, and you can slide on one or two of these requirements, but don’t skip the margaritas (that’s just good policy.) It’s not that readers who don’t fit this description won’t enjoy Bossypants. It is funny as hell, and Fey doesn’t skimp on anecdotes from her stints at Second City, Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. Anyone will respond to those segments. But there is a reflective tone to the memoir which I think adult women in particular will relate to, as Fey examines how her experiences as a young woman and later as a mother shaped (and continue to shape) her ambitions, neuroses and successes.

Fey’s initial stories about her working-class upbringing and time spent in the trenches of the service industry humanize her enough that we’re willing to follow her when she turns her attention to the challenges of celebrity. She relates these stories by paying particular attention to anxieties most women will recognize. For example, I’ve never had to endure a professional photo shoot for a glossy magazine (and that’s really okay with me), but Fey describes the experience with such frankness and humor that anyone who’s ever had her picture taken will feel reassured.

“Somebody will put up a makeshift wall by holding a full-length mirror next to an open loft window, and you will strip down naked. You must not look in that mirror at your doughy legs and flat feet, for today is all about dreams and illusions, and unfiltered natural daylight is the enemy or dreams.

When you inevitably can’t fit into a garment, the stylist’s assistant will be sent in to help you. The stylist’s assistant will be a chic twenty-year-old Asian girl named Esther or Agnes or Lot’s Wife.

…at this point in time her job is to stuff a middle-aged woman’s bare ass crack into a Prada dress and zip it up. In my case, Esther and I are always mutually frustrated when zipping up the tiny dress. Esther is disgusted by my dimply flesh and her low status. I’m annoyed that her tiny hands lack the strength to get Pandora’s plague back into the box.”

Fey never shies from the fact that being a woman has shaped her experiences and successes. She’s up front about her feminism, but she’s not a cookie-cutter feminist. She challenges women to resist victimhood and plunge on with their ambitions, even in the face of sexism. One particularly funny segment of Bossypants details Amy Poehler’s arrival at SNL and exposes the sometimes subtle, unspoken sexism of the entertainment (in particular the comedy) industry:

“Amy (Poehler) was new to SNL and we were all crowded into the seventeenth-floor writers’ room, waiting for the Wednesday read-through to start. There were always a lot of noisy “comedy bits” going on in that room. Amy was in the middle of some such nonsense with Seth Meyers across the table, and she did something vulgar as a joke. I can’t remember what it was exactly, except it was dirty and loud and ‘unladylike’.

Jimmy Fallon, who was arguably the star of the show at the time, turned to her in and in a faux-squeamish voice said, ‘Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it!’ Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. ‘I don’t fucking care if you like it.’

…With that exchange, a cosmic shift took place. Amy made it clear that she wasn’t there to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it.”

I can’t say I love Fey’s advice to women facing workplace sexism, however:

“So my unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this person in between me and what I want to do?’ If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. …

If the answer is yes, you have a more difficult road ahead of you … don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions. Go ‘Over! Under! Through!’ and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing and don’t care if they like it.”

I agree that trusting our own competence is definitely the most valuable response to sexism in the long-run, but sometimes (as Poehler demonstrates) calling others out on their assumptions is valuable and lets people know you’re not showing up just to ferry their coffee.

If you get a chance, I recommend supplementing Bossypants with Rosanne Barr’s recent article in New York Magazine. Both women discuss sexism in the entertainment industry, but Barr’s response is both more strident and more potent. Perhaps Barr’s unwillingness to compromise as a writer, actress and comedian (and ultimately as the boss of her own show) cleared a somewhat smoother path for the Tina Feys, Amy Poehlers and Kristin Wiigs of the next generation.

Fey’s comic timing and original point-of-view are fantastic, and I giggled through most of Bossypants, but long-form prose isn’t exactly her strong suit. Transitions tend to be slight or non-existent, her chapters tend to end abruptly, and her organization is inconsistent. It’s clear Fey spends most of her time writing short sketches and screenplays, as the book’s funniest moments are the lists like “The Mother’s Prayer for Its Daughter,” which includes hopes such as:

“May she play the Drums to the fiery rhythm of her Own Heart with the sinewy strength of her Own Arms, so she need Not Lie With Drummers.”

and

“And when she one day turns on me and calls me a Bitch in front of Hollister,
Give me the strength, Lord, to yank her directly into a cab in front of her friends,
For I will not have that Shit. I will not have it.”

Charmingly, Fey isn’t afraid to expose her own insecurities in the interest of honest reflection, and it’s these insecurities which resonate throughout Bossypants. But I believe the specificity of Fey’s point-of-view prevented even open-minded Mr. Irises from enjoying even the funniest bits I read aloud to him. He’s not a nearly-40-year-old woman writer, terrified of having her picture taken, with a working-class background and young daughter, for example – hence my recommended-reader qualifications. Perhaps I should have plied him with margaritas first? Nah. I think I’ll keep both the margaritas and Bossypants to myself (or share them with my girls.) After all, he has Woody Allen.

Swamplandia!

3 May

2000irises: A review of Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Mr. Irises and I have a longstanding tradition which I never thought was unusual until I mentioned it to friends. We read books aloud to each other. I don’t know when we started doing this, probably over 15 years ago, and I can’t say how many books we’ve shared. Many. We read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy aloud. All seven Harry Potter books. The Chronicles of Narnia. So many more: The Blind Assassin, Tender is the Night, Love In The Time of Cholera, The Secret History, The Keep, etc. I can’t possibly remember them all. Over the past few years, though, we’ve become very spotty about reading together – small children can be so inconvenient. (Stop scowling. That was a joke.) In any case, we kept promising to get back to reading aloud. A little over a month ago we decided to give it another go and chose Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. What a fantastic book to come back to.

Swamplandia! is the story of the Bigtrees: a strange, insulated family living on an isolated island in the Ten Thousand Islands region of the Everglades. The Bigtrees have owned and operated the Swamplandia! alligator-wrestling theme park for two generations, but when its star attraction, Hilola Bigtree, dies of ovarian cancer, the park falls on hard times. That’s just the beginning. What follows is the tale of a fractured family, founded on a manufactured history, struggling to survive as their self-delusions unravel.

The book is primarily told through the recollections of Ava Bigtree, who is 13 at the time of the story. She’s been so thoroughly insulated from the mainland that the only “ordinary” people she has ever met are the service people and tourists who come to Swamplandia!. She aspires to the magnificent strength and bravery of her mother, Hilola, and after her mother dies, Ava takes it upon herself to rescue her family from ruin. However, a scrappy 13-year-old who understands alligators far better than she understands people is an extraordinarily vulnerable person. She shows amazing courage, but her blind faith is a terrible liability.

We also spend a good deal of time with Ava’s older brother, Kiwi – a 17-year-old who only wants to escape the confines of the island and go to school like a normal teenager. He reads voraciously and counts himself a genius, but when he defects to the mainland, he learns the hard way just how little he knows. Like Ava, Kiwi has no idea how to interact with other people. As he discovers just how much of his family’s life is a fiction, he becomes more even devoted to them while scrabbling for his own independence.

Other characters in Swamplandia! include the third Bigtree sibling: Osceola, a 16-year-old with a predilection for interludes with ghosts; Sawtooth Bigtree, the aged patriarch; Samuel (Chief) Bigtree, Sawtooth’s fervently delusional son who has raised his children to be fiercely loyal to their family and proud of their home; and The Bird Man, a spectral figure who ostensibly controls the avian life of the swamp. And Russell describes that swamp with such throbbing detail that it too becomes a quasi-sentient being, pulsing with life, both sustaining and treacherous.

Russell writes so beautifully that at twenty-nine, she’s already been singled out by The National Book Foundation and the New Yorker for her prodigious talent. Have a look at Swamplandia!’s opening sentences:

“Our mother performed in starlight. Whose innovation this was I never discovered. Probably it was Chief Bigtree’s idea, and it was a good one – to blank the follow spot and let a sharp moon cut across the sky, unchaperoned; to kill the microphone; to leave the stage lights’ tin eyelids scrolled and give the tourists in the stands a chance to enjoy the darkness of our island; to encourage the whole stadium to gulp air along with Swamplandia!’s star performer, the world-famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree.”

Swamplandia! is thoroughly original, magical, and deeply suspenseful. Unfortunately, it highlighted one of the perils of reading aloud – it’s impossible to read a whole book quickly, especially when the writing is this rich. One can’t stay up all night, plunging desperately through chapter after chapter. After weeks of mounting tension, though, Mr. Irises and I finally caved in to the pressure and spent three hours straight reading the harrowing last 80 pages, desperate to reach the resolution. It didn’t disappoint. It’s already won the Bard Fiction Prize, and I think we can expect to see this book on more of 2011’s short lists of best fiction. Read it and tell me what you think.

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