Monday, September 3, 2012

Back to work!

So, it's been a long and eventful summer. I left my post as publishing intern at Bitch Media (sniff), travelled back to Australia to see my family (yay! and sniff), and landed a position at the literary journal Portland Review as their first ever book review editor (yay!).

(This guy is from the front page of Portland Review's tumblr).

Summer reading highlights have included Wild by Cheryl Strayed - an excellent memoir about transformation, both spiritually and physically by the hands of nature (specifically the Pacific Crest Trail, hiked by a young Strayed with no backpacking experience - motivated by a divorce and the death of her mother).

 I saw Strayed, a local author, read at Powell's Books when Wild was first released, then I saw her book everywhere. And it was not just an association thing. She got some serious marketing $$ set aside from her publisher (Knopf). She was featured in Vogue to Outdoor magazine, on the IndieNext list, and Oprah Winfrey even re-launched her book club. Reese Witherspoon bought the film rights to star as Strayed in the movie version (which was distracting as I read the book - I kept picturing Witherspoon. But she is a good fit for the funny yet serious determined and strong clueless hiker Strayed depicts herself as). I'm not trying to be cynical about the marketing $$; this book deserves this attention. As a book publishing student who took a 'bookselling' class last quarter I just payed close attention to what a big publisher can do to help a book, well, sell.

Another memoir I read by a local author was Lidia Yuknavitch's The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books). Unlike Wild which depicted a certain chunk of time in the author's life (the hike), The Chronology of Water depicts scenes from childhood, adolescence, and adulthood in a fluid, non-linear, and metaphorical way, with water being the 'element' that ties the scenes together. This technique interests me more in the mechanics of writing creative nonfiction as it is how I seem to approach mine.  Yet this memoir, because of this technique, was a little more difficult to read. Also, Yuknavitch, though fluid and metaphorical, speaks directly and clearly about harrowing subjects - rape, incest, birthing a stillborn child, as well as titillating ones (some HOT sex scenes including one with, um KATHY ACKER!). The Chronology of Water is more of a writer's book - one that would be enjoyed by those interested in literature, transgression, the writer's inner life, and technique, where as Wild is more of straight up memoir I would buy for friends and family who don't read a lot (but should!). But I don't want to compare these books- they are both amazing in completely different ways. I just bought Yuknavitch's first novel, Dora: A Headcase which I will be writing about soon.

So, I thought that Labor Day would be a good time to get back to work, and get this blog going again. Thanks for reading! :)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Book Review: Blue Thread by Ruth Tenzer Feldman. (Ooligan Press)

100 years ago, women in Oregon were, after their sixth petition, finally given the right to vote. Blue Thread is a YA novel set during this time in 1912 Portland, and follows the main character—sixteen-year old Miriam Josefsohn—in her discovery of, and growing involvement in, the women’s suffrage movement. Miriam wants nothing more than to work in her father’s print shop; however he is strongly opposed to this based solely on the fact that Miriam is female. Her parents want to marry her off to a nice Jewish boy, a fact which alarms Miriam… she may not even want to marry! She meets two sisters who have opened a milliners store in downtown Portland who are quite active in the suffrage movement, and when Miriam learns that her own father printed a scandalous postcard encouraging men to vote "no" during the last petition for suffrage she becomes outraged and flings herself into righting his wrong.

Author Ruth Tenzer Feldman has published many nonfiction books on historical figures and events for children and young adults, and this is her first novel. Her historian’s research is reflected in impeccable descriptions of clothing, mechanics—such as the old printing presses—and events throughout the novel, but Blue Thread is not just historical fiction. Fans of the fantastical YA novel, don’t despair—along with fighting for women’s suffrage, Miriam travels through time using a prayer shawl handed down through the women in her family that contains blue thread from Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors to encourage the Daughters of Zelophehad to petition Moses for women’s right to inherit land in the absence of a male heir. It’s in the Torah! Well, kind of.

Somehow it makes sense for a nonfiction author to allow her imagination to truly run free when writing a novel, and although I have not read a lot of YA the weaving of these two worlds happens pretty seamlessly, and seems fitting for the genre. The linking of these vastly different moments of women’s history, separated by thousands of years, came from an actual historical document that Tenzer Feldman references in the novel: a photograph from 1908 of a suffrage parade with women carrying a banner: LIKE THE DAUGHTERS OF ZELOPHEHAD WE ASK FOR OUR INHERITANCE.

While a relatively minor Biblical story, the Daughters of Zelophehad stood out to Tenzer Feldman when she studied the Torah. She says that Blue Thread is a “modern midrash—a narrative based on a centuries-old Jewish tradition of reinterpreting or 'spinning’ the facts or words in a text—often the Bible—into another story that adds to the original or pulls the reader into another time and place. Think ‘homily’ without the sermonizing.”

It’s hard to say how young readers will identify with an upper-middle-class Jewish girl from the early 20th century encouraging women to speak up to Moses, but I found Miriam an important literary heroine. Her indignation at being treated like a second-class citizen just because she was female is relatable across all time and cultures. What started as personal became political when she sees she is not the only person being treated like this. The magical prayer shawl does not figure prominently, but it is an important novelistic device that symbolizes the thread running through all generations before us, and all generations to come to fight against oppression. Plus time travel is really cool and I have not read about a lot of young female heroines who do it!

The nonfiction side of Tenzer Feldman’s brain pushes it way back to the forefront, after the novel is done doing its fiction, by an afterward that documents what is true and not true in the story. Tenzer Feldman touchingly ends with: “The magic in Miriam’s prayer shawl is real. It is that quality of something inside us that pushes us to do the right thing when we least expect it.” That’s a lesson that should ring true no matter what century a young woman finds herself in.

This blog was first published by Bitch Media.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

CALYX Journal Review

cover of CALYX featuring a woman's feet next to a watermelon

CALYX Journal begins its 36th year of publishing fine art and literature by women with its winter 2012 issue (vol. 27, no. 3). This self-described feminist literary journal allows women’s voices to be front and center, which is why its four female founders created it in 1976.  Referencing a recent survey conducted by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts the introduction in the summer 2011 issue of CALYX points out that women’s voices are still highly marginalized in the literary journals and magazines, making their mission as relevant as ever.

The summer 2011 issue of CALYX was a transitional one, with longtime founding editor and director Margarita Donnelly and senior editor Beverly McFarland retiring, and two young women filling their shoes: Kelsey Connell as Director, and Rebecca Olson as Senior Editor. After meeting these two women, both in their mid-twenties, at a literary festival (“So, do you both intern at CALYX?” I asked them naively when I approached the CALYX booth) and seeing that this journal was undergoing a huge and exciting transition, I was intrigued by what this meant for the next generation of feminist literary publishing.  CALYX helped launch the careers of many successful writers, like Barbara Kingsolver, Natalie Goldberg, and Julia Alvarez (CALYX was also the first to publish the artwork of Frida Kahlo in color in the U.S). I asked Rebecca and Kelsey a few questions on the changes at CALYX (which is a nonprofit organization that also publishes books) and ways that literature- and art-loving feminists of all ages could support and contribute to its future.

How did you both become involved with Calyx? What brought on the transition and was it a smooth one?

Rebecca: I started at CALYX as an intern in Fall of 2008. In some ways this was a scary time to start working for a small press—the economy had just taken a turn for the worse, funding for nonprofit art and literature projects like ours wasn't looking good, and the publishing industry was taking some major hits. But in other ways it was the perfect time. Our founder and director for 35 years Margarita Donnelly was recovering from breast cancer and CALYX really needed some new energy.

Kelsey: I came in as Assistant Director in 2010. I was thrilled to be a part of CALYX because of its commitment to sharing the diverse voices of women. As Rebecca said, there are so many uncertainties in the industry. For me, it is crucial that passion for and commitment to your mission drives you through any challenges. For CALYX, the staffing transition was about renewal of a mission-focused commitment to continually build the community of writers and artists that has characterized CALYX for so long.

Rebecca: The staffing transition went about as well as anyone could have hoped—when you're dealing with organizations that have been operating under the same leadership for so long, there's always the risk of things falling apart or people feeling alienated. That thankfully didn't happen for us. Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts as part of the stimulus package to create new jobs, CALYX was able to hire Kelsey and me to train for a year under the direction of Margarita (director for 35 years) and Beverly (senior editor for 23 years).

Do you think the aesthetic/ vision/ delivery of Calyx will change? For example, are you moving to digital formats? Is there going to be a "modernizing" of Calyx for the next generation?

Rebecca: The mission of CALYX—to publish great feminist art and writing—isn't going to change, but the delivery certainly will. We're in the process now of modernizing our aesthetic—our logo and website specifically (if there are any hot designers out there looking to volunteer, please send us an email!).

This fall we released our first title that's available as an e-book, Who in This Room: The Realities of Cancer, Fish, and Demolition. From here on out, all of our books will be available electronically. As for the journal, we're working to offer our readers more multimedia content online. We're stoked about our new audio archive where you can hear our authors reading their work (our mission is all about "women's voices"... so we decided to take ourselves literally).

Kelsey: We're ready for our online presence to show off our legacy while illustrating our commitment to modern artists and authors. Digital formatting offers a platform for the sharing of ideas and connecting of diverse communities that is truly unique and can allow us to grow our audience in ways that they may never have dreamed possible in the 1970s.

The journal will be print-only during 2012, but don't count us out for online expansion. I'd love to see  CALYX Journal on online bookshelves sometime soon.

There is a diversity of style in the current issue (winter 2012, vol. 27 no. 1) but the emphasis seems to be first on poetry, and then the short personal essay, and then there was that awesome speculative fiction piece at the very end! Are you open to more experimental writing, or is there something in particular you look for to 'represent' CALYX?

Rebecca: The issues are all completely unique so it's generalize about our style (but it's funny you say this issue is heavy on the poems—I'm a poetry nerd and I was wondering if that bias was going to start spilling over into my work...). Our issues are pretty representative of the work that we receive—[the editorial collective] loves great experimental writing, we love speculative fiction, we adore weird hybrid pieces, but last year we seemed to get a lot of narrative poetry and personal essays (which is a fair amount of what you'll find in this issue). I hope that next year we'll see even more variety in the styles of submissions we get—we want to represent the very best of women's electric imaginations!

Is CALYX continuing to publish books?

Kelsey: Yes! One of the staff's commitments to CALYX's future is to expand our book production. We have two titles in the fire right now. One will be published in 2012—a novel entitled The Jewel in The Lotus by Laurette Folk, which is about a young woman exploring the meaning of artistry in her life as she comes to terms with depression and anxiety.

Rebecca: We'll also be publishing a short story collection about love in small places by Helen Klonaris, a queer Greek-Bahamian writer. There's even more coming around the bend for 2013!

What is one of the most exciting things about CALYX in 2012?

Rebecca: One of the things that I think is most exciting about CALYX is our perfect position to act as a bridge between feminists of different ages. We receive many submissions from women who have known about our magazine since the late 70's—they grew up as wild women alongside CALYX back when feminists were rolling up in cars wearing witch hats and slapping "this offends women" stickers onto sexist print media at newsstands (true story from one of our current volunteers...). These second-wavers are still writing and still sending work out today, and we publish plenty of their work in our magazine. But what's so great is now we're starting to see more submissions from young women who are just starting out and have something to say about what it means to be a feminist today. And so we become a multi-generational space for feminist art (and that's rad).

CALYX Journal is currently seeking submissions for our full-color art center section. Visit our art guidelines if you want to send work to be considered for the summer 2012 issue!

You can purchase a copy of the current issue here.

This review was originally published by Bitch Media

Friday, January 6, 2012

Book Review: Glaciers, by Alexis M. Smith. Tin House Books

I read this 'novel' in one sitting. (Although I loved the book I am still skeptical of this work being called a novel: it's 174 pages, and the page layout has top and bottom margins of almost two inches). But me reading it in one sitting has as much to do with being carried away with the story which is sweeping in its brevity.

Glaciers is beautifully written, which is not suprising considering it is published by Tin House Books. Tin House literary journal is one of the most distinguished literary journals in North America. I am sure the task of publishing a young unknown writer for their 'new voice' series is a hard one, but one that I am glad they make.

The story follows one day in the life of twenty-something narrator Isabel, who is a librarian living in Portland, OR (represent!). It is a quiet third person narrative that follows Isabel's internal thoughts and longings. Although she lives in a city she notices the little things that get can get lost in our fast-paced world: the sounds of birds, the light through leaves, the small patch of sunlight in the kitchen in the morning, the taste of honey on a spoon warmed from tea. She collects old postcards from thrift stores and dreams of traveling to Amsterdam. She is even in love with a soldier who works with her at the library- a veteran from Iraq. Glaciers is a modern day American twist on the romantic aesthetic of Europe in the early twentieth century; Isabel is the heroine of the nerdy, book-loving, vintage clothes wearing, tea-drinking lady who loves her cat (yes, this is why I loved the book so much).

I can see the comparisons to Margarite Duras and Virginia Woolfe that Tin House touts - Smith reveals the inner longings of a woman on an extremely macro level while setting it beside a metaphor of something larger (in this case Glaciers, a natural wonder under threat from global warming). Part of my frustration with this work being called a novel is that I would have loved it to go further - to truly unpack the wonderful imagery, to go deeper into the characters, to extend the story beyond the postcard and into letters spanning years. However the sparseness adds to the modern day twist. (I loved that I could read a 'novel' in one sitting, something I can barely do these days with all that flashy information out there competing for my short attention span). Glaciers is like a little analogue warmth in a cold digital world, like listening to vinyl, or posting a letter in the mail. It is a story that resonates and humanizes, and seeks to connect.

***I am lucky I am a book nerd living in Portland, OR 'cuz I get to see Alexis M. Smith read at Powell's on Burnside this Monday, 9th January at 7pm.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Book Review & Author Interview: One More for the People, by Martha Grover

Martha Grover has been publishing her zine Somnambulist since 2003. The first collection of this zine, One More for the People came out on Tuesday from Perfect Day Publishing, a small press based out of Portland, OR. Unlike other zine collections, One More for the People is not a linear anthologizing of Somnambulist, but instead a selection of writing from the zine along with some new work, allowing the book to stand alone in its own right.

Grover’s writing doesn’t just document, it shifts stylistically depending on the subjects she is writing about, displaying her immense talent as a nonfiction writer. For example, when Grover recounts her childhood growing up with six other siblings and vaguely irresponsible parents on a property outside of Portland, she effectively captures the suffocation of so many people, the ways in which we escape, and the strange bonds of family. In the section about her diagnoses with Cushing’s disease, a rare hormonal disorder, the prose is stark, tough, and somewhat lonely. There is a notable absence of people other than Grover and medical providers, capturing the loneliness of chronic illness, even when one comes from an immediate family of nine.

Having to move back in with her parents and four other (now adult) siblings, the section “The Grover Family Meeting Minutes” is a hilarious transcription of the weekly house meetings her family had, paralleling the bustling section about her childhood, and the oddities of family. When Grover goes to grad school in the next section, she is again alone, her disease her company, with medical implements, side effects, and drug studies part of everyday life. One More for the People ends with a section called “Personals” that effectively captures the peanut gallery of humanity and how all we really want is to be loved and appreciated for the individual we are.

Each section of the book could stand alone as its own zine, with its own internal structure , however there is a subtle story arc to the way the pieces are put together, shifting from an overpopulated childhood, to the need to be alone, to the times we don’t choose to be alone, and for the need to be recognized as a unique individual in world of billions.

One More for the People is a beautiful, substantial book, both in content and design. With letterpressed covers and thick paperstock there is an attention to detail that comes from being born out of the DIY/ zine community with its nostalgia for the tactile act of packaging words.
I asked Martha a few questions about her book, her zine, and how to keep reading her work.

Which issue of your zine is the first one that deals with you finding out about your diagnoses of Cushing's? Did this change what your zine was "about"?
I'm thinking issue 12 or 13 was when I started writing about Cushing's. I never devoted a zine to the disease though—not in a direct way. I used my blog more for that—to give people a current take on what was happening with me. But the illness was always there in my zine, under the surface, bubbling up from time to time. I wouldn't say that it changed what my zine was about—Somnambulist has always been about what's going on in my life, or what I happen to be interested in, at any given moment. What's weird is that if you go back and read some old issues—before I knew I was sick, issue 9 in particular—it's eerie because I was dealing with all these health problems and writing about them, but I didn't know how sick I really was. Now that's spooky!!

Does it feel different to have a "book" out, even though you have been publishing your zine for so long?It does feel different to have the book out—this is a medium that people take more seriously. I think the zine has been great practice for the book. I'm used to having my stuff out there where people can read it but now the difference is that more people are reading it and I don't have to constantly explain what a zine is!

What was the selection process for the pieces in the book?Once Michael [Heald, Perfect Day publisher] and I decided on the basic structure we went through the material (there was a ton of it!) and decided what fit and what didn't. There was some stuff that could have made it into the book but didn't, mostly because it didn't fit stylistically or whatever. I think Michael was ingenious in placing the pieces in order—like a curator. He's very good at his job.

Are you still writing your zine, and if so, how can people subscribe?
I am still writing my zine! I am just now finishing up number 18. You can subscribe by sending me $15 (this covers four issues): Martha Grover, PO Box 14871, Portland OR 97293, or going to my blog and paying me fifteen dollars throughout the paypal button ( Either way just make sure you give me your current address.

One More for the People can be ordered from the publisher. If you are in Portland be sure to check out the book launch this Saturday.

This piece was originally published by Bitch Media:

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book Review: 'Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? By Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is one of those prolific authors, like Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates, who I can always rely on when walking into a used bookstore. Often I will just buy a different edition of one of their books that I already love, but if I want something new to read but am not in the mood for taking a risk there is a long list of titles I can choose from those old faithfuls. Jeanette Winterson is probably the most quotable author I have ever read, especially for those of us who live passionately, love obsessively, and believe that art can (and will) change the world. If you ever want a cool literary tattoo just read one of her books—you are sure to find some kind of quote that resonates.

Cover of Jeanette Winterson memoir, author as a young girls standing on an English beach holding a beachball

Winterson, who was born in Manchester, England has written 10 novels, a comic book, a book of short stories, a collection of essays, children’s books, her fiction and poetry is featured in many journals and anthologies, and she has worked as a journalist; her writing is, thankfully, everywhere. Her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) written when she was only twenty-three, is perhaps her most well-known, winning the Whitbread Award for first novel and having been adapted into an award-winning BBC drama. Semi-autobiographical, Oranges is the story of a young woman, named Jeanette, who was adopted by a fanatically evangelical couple, and leaves home at 16 to be with another woman after her parents' church failed to exorcize the gay demon inside her. Fairy tales are inserted throughout the narrative; Winterson’s works as a whole have a fragmented, magical realist quality to them. The fact the main plot points overlap with Winterson’s own life experience has always been well-known, but with the release of Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? in October (in the U.K—official U.S release date is March 2012), the harsh reality of Winterson’s upbringing stand out even more starkly against the layers of her non-linear, heavily metaphorical, fictional work.

The image portrayed of Winterson’s adoptive mother, whom she calls Mrs. Winterson throughout Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is as looming and terrifying as the "fictional" Testifying Elsie from Oranges: “Mrs. Winterson was not a welcoming woman. If anyone knocked at the door she ran down the lobby and shoved the poker through the letterbox.” Jeanette was often locked outside, left on the doorstep for hours as a very young child. Apocalyptic Bible quotes were pasted around the house. Books were banned (except for the Bible) and Mrs. Winterson burned Jeanette’s secret stash of paperbacks (“it is probably why I write as I do,” Winterson writes when she picked up the leftover fragments of burnt pages the morning after her books were burned, “collecting the scraps, uncertain of continuous narrative.”) Mrs. Winterson was physically as well as emotionally abusive, and yes, subjected her fifteen-year-old daughter to an "exorcism" because Jeanette was in love with another woman. The title of the memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a direct quote from Mrs. Winterson, hurled at Jeanette when she decided to leave home at 16 to be with the woman she loved.

While leaning heavily on her childhood experience split between an abusive home in a tiny, northern working-class English town, and the escape into books through her public library, Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? moves in a steady linear fashion up until Winterson’s time at Oxford (and how she had to fight to get in). It then very consciously skips twenty-five years between Winterson being in college, writing her first novel, and becoming a famous author, into her present experience of seeking out her birth mother. This is done in a very Winterson-like way, with a small chapter titled "Intermission" in which she states “I measure time as we all do, and partly by the fading body, but in order to challenge linear time, I try and live in total time. I recognize that life has an inside as well as an outside and that events separated by years lie side by side imaginatively and emotionally.”

Although Winterson chooses to skip her twenty-five years as a professional writer her landing in the present in the last third of the book is not layered by fiction or a magic-realist narrative, it is a very stark and real account of a long-term relationship break up, Winterson’s subsequent mental-health breakdown and suicide attempt, and the painful process of finding her birth mother.
Whether or not one is familiar with Winterson’s fictional work, this memoir stands alone. Despite tough subjects it is warm, often funny, and like any great memoir, redemptive. While offering tremendous insight into the experiences that shaped this writer’s unique voice, this memoir is not about how to become a famous writer, or even really about Jeanette Winterson—it is a memoir about seeking identity, seeking love, seeking a mother, and the power of sharing words and stories. The life-saving quality of books is celebrated: “This is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place, it’s a finding place.”

It’s all I can do to not quote all my favorite passages from Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? until I've quoted the whole thing. Here is another one: “Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.” Yet Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is nonfiction narrative that is medicinal as well, and here, quoting Winterson again, is why this fiction writer’s memoir is so effective: “Personal stories work for other people when those stories become both paradigms and parables. The intensity of a story releases into a bigger space than the one it occupied in time and place. The story crosses the threshold from my world into yours. We meet each other on the steps of the story.” I think those last two lines will be my next tattoo.

Published on the 'Bibliobitch' Blog:

Monday, October 17, 2011

Shine On!

There is an explosion of support for Lauren Myracle, and her YA novel Shine after the National Book Foundation blundered its announcement that the book was a nominee in the Young People's Literature category. Having to renounce the recognition that being nominated for a National Book Award brings, Myracle seems to be garnering more attention from the press, and social media, than any books that still remain on the finalist list.

It will be interesting to see how many copies of Shine sell in this momentous surge in support of her novel, which deals with underrepresented themes in award-winning YA literature: gay hate crimes.

It brings to mind something the poet Crystal Williams said at a reading I attended last year, about how National Book Award winners tended to be overrepresented in the category of straight, white, male.

Perhaps they really are a little out of touch? This cannot be helping the general assumption that the NBF is part of the 'old' book publishing industry. Although the 'new' is still being defined (which is why I love being a book publishing student!), it seems the power of the people may outweigh a logo on the book (although the money that comes with the award is pretty sweet...)

I admit, as someone who does not read a lot of YA literature, I have been hearing a lot about the book and am tempted to go and buy a copy. From an independent bookstore of course! ;)

What I think is awesome is that due to this error, the NBF is donating $5000 to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, named in honor of a young boy murdered because he was gay. Raising the awareness of this issue seems to be the legacy of Shine, National Book Award or not.

Right on Lauren Myracle!