Coming of Age in a Hardscrabble World: A Memoir Anthology by Nancy C Atwood (Editor), Roger Atwood (Editor)

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They will tell you that the depth of that meanness often depends on what life has done to a person, on the impressions left by brushes with people different from you, on those rare times when the parallel universes came close enough to touch. -Rick Bragg from All Over but the Shouting 

Growing up in working class America takes the spotlight in this non-fiction collection of excerpts from memoirs written in the 1980’s to 2014. The many voices within encompass more differences than their ethnicity, each life experience despite location is it’s own microcosm. The readers themselves are brushing up against parallel universes here. Some grew up with parents who were immigrants, wanting desperately to gain an education, no matter how limited their options. “I only know she’s clever, she deserves an education, and she’s going to get one. This is America. The girls are not cows in the field only waiting for a bull to mate with.” This from Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments: A Memoir.  For so many immigrants their limited language skills in their new country has them working jobs far beneath their skill and education level, naturally children growing up in such homes have to help their family out, to stay afloat even working as young as nine as Luis J. Rodriguez did. Child labor wasn’t new to the Rodriguez family, his own mother a cotton picker. Maya Angelou herself wandered the streets, living in an empty car in a junkyard for days. There lies a pulsing heart full of determination, at such a tender age. Something about struggle lends wisdom, feeds talent, some gain strength from adversity they face but there wasn’t really a choice, not where living in poverty is concerned. You do what you have to do.

We talk about race and inequality, but reading about it from another’s perspective is a different experience entirely. This excerpt from Joe Queenan’s Closing Time: A Memoir, speaks volumes about how sheltered our world views often are when we are young and surrounded only by what we are taught and experience in our own environment. “Until our paths crossed, I had no idea that people with dark skins were even allowed to be Brides of Christ.” Poverty and abuse too, it is inspiring to read about the mountains others have traversed, that even when it seems fate is against them, they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and fought their way to what they wanted, a better life. It’s not enough to be smart, conformity is often the beast one had to embrace, danger, racism, and discrimination. Class, coming from nothing you have to learn how to fit into those grand, distinguished places you find yourself in, places others navigate with ease, born to it. It’s not enough to ‘make it’, you have to survive and figure out where you fit and how. It’s rebelling when you need too, conceding when you have to. We like to think we’re above class in the Western World but it’s just as alive here as anywhere else. Maybe you don’t enter places where your social standing is tested, your education, your wealth or maybe such doors are closed to you, but they exist all the same.

Alcoholism and how children grow up in the midst of it, the fighting over money and lack thereof. The things mothers and fathers keep from each other, a game children are not yet well versed in and the disastrous consequences as shared in an excerpt from Mary Karr’s memoir (and a personal favorite of mine) The Liar’s Club. Mothers of divorce who get lonely and try on a man and his family, blended families not quite mixing. Salvation that is almost as bad as loneliness, trying to become a part of a new family like Tobias Wolff. Hanging with kids on the city streets, all rough and tumble. Friendships with boys whose homes become refuges where some mothers play piano and fathers have excellent libraries, an eye into different worlds. Homes where bigotry is just as natural as breathing, where mother’s get beatings and crying “Don’t hurt my teeth”, is her only defense as her son watches on afraid momma will be killed. (Rick Bragg,  All Over but the Shoutin’).

This collection is varied and wonderful, even in the darkest corners there is light. It offers up meaningful moments in some of the most ‘hardscrabble lives’ as told through memoirs that will likely inspire readers to read the full books.

Available Now

University of Georgia Press

 

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The Bundy Secrets: Hidden Files on America’s Worst Serial Killer by Kevin M Sullivan

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Ted was  well-behaved, well-dressed, intelligent, and acted extremely proper at all times.

Growing up in Florida I still remember the day Bundy was executed in the electric chair as it was announced on a radio station I was listening to. I remember the dj telling a joke about there being a power bump because Bundy was on old sparky, certainly no one I knew was grieving. I go from thinking labeling such horrific murderers as monsters gives them too much power and removes them too far from humanity for us to attempt to understand them to feeling this has to be evil. There is information in this third and final book in Sullivan’s triology about Ted Bundy that I didn’t know. It makes sense that Liz was an anchor to his sanity, what remained of it anyway. I have to wonder why or how someone becomes Ted, with his urges? Do we study it, can it be explained, prevented? I don’t know, I really don’t know. Were there more victims? There certainly must be more we don’t know about Bundy than what we’re sure of. There are records of surveillance in this book, it starts off with Ted being followed. Such books serve a purpose, because when authors comb through the police records, victims testimony, interrogation of Bundy in the cases, speak to those who knew him well and those who just had a run in with him there is an extra pair of eyes that may well connect more dots, or find new evidence, make sense of the old.

This book really takes you knee deep into interviews, and what happened to his victims. It is horrifying, how can it not be, doubly so reading this as a mother? I cannot imagine what the families suffered in the aftermath, suffer still anymore than I can imagine the heartache his own family must face, friends who once trusted him. It’s terrifying how charming, educated, friendly he seemed to others. Why wouldn’t someone trust him, in all honesty, knowing so many felt he was always proper, sounded well-educated and looked like the sort of person we’re told to trust? It was as if there was this switch that turned off whatever was human inside of him. Where did his rage come from? Why one person and not another?  He seemed so blasé about everything he had done, though of course he didn’t want to talk about the victims, that would make them real people. I cannot get the thought out of my head of Bundy as predator, ‘observing people everywhere he went’. Not every stranger was fooled though, like the older bank teller who immediately thought he was a killer- why do some of us have the correct instinct and others of us fall for the act? Do our eyes trick our brain so much? These are just questions that hit me when I read anything about his sickening crimes.

The victims, let’s not forget the victims were people with lives, families and friends. Beautiful human beings who happened to attract Bundy’s attention through no fault of their own. Liz was his victim of a different sort too, but did he love her? Was he really capable of love, it seems she was more than a ‘cover’ to camouflage his blood-lust because again and again he turned to her. Was any part of him genuine? No one can act all the time, right? I cannot imagine having to face that the person you shared your life with, or given birth to is someone like Bundy.  “What did I miss, what is wrong with me that I didn’t see the signs?” There aren’t words to really describe the chaos that reigned in his wake, even today it lingers.

Kevin Sullivan’s book gives the reader the feeling of what it must have been like to piece together information from so many sources, trying to put it all together to tie Ted with his victims, the ones we know about anyway. In real life it isn’t all laid out in an orderly fashion and from the interviews to testimony and Ted’s own words it’s dizzying. Those who knew him best (if that were even possible) to strangers, many of their epiphanies came far later after he was caught and things added up from his presence in certain locations, to attempts at abductions and his nervous behaviors. This certainly speaks of years of research on the author’s part. Now I have to go read something else that reaffirms my faith in humanity.

Out Now  Published April 23, 2019

Wildblue Press

 

 

 

Being Mean: A Memoir of Sexual Abuse and Survival by Patricia Eagle

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What has been lived will never be erased, and possibly never be completely understood.

Being Mean was a term as violent as a loaded gun in Patricia’s household. Her memories of her childhood and the sexual abuse she was subjected to by her father, enabled by her cold mother isn’t easy to stomach. It’s a society built on silence, the weapon isn’t used solely by abusers but entire families because to confront the horror of what is happening is to admit a sort of defeat and vileness in one’s own home. To the victim, particularly when it starts at a tender age, there is a traffic jam in the brain because how does a child understand what is happening to them when there is a chaos of confusion and conflicting feelings? Our bodies feel good, so is that bad if what is happening is something you both hate and enjoy? How do you measure normal with nothing to compare it to, until you’re old enough to witness what an easy, natural, harmless affection is between father and child?

How often, through stories of abuse survivors, do we hear that when the victim tried to tell their other parent or a trusted family member they were  ‘smacked across the face’ or deemed a liar, a bad girl/boy? Worse, jealousy- a mother jealous of the affections given to her child, affections that violate every cell of the little girl’s being. How do you grow up and not act out or struggle with impulses? It isn’t unusual for a woman’s body to turn against her, with the reproductive organs. It seems we bury our emotions there, a silent graveyard of transgressions. You may dissociate psychologically but the body knows, and it will revolt.

If this were a movie of the week, Patricia would out her father and there would be a trial, he’d be shunned at some point, her mother would rally behind her. This is real life, and real life is crooked. She is a sick woman, she remembers wrong, she is making it up right? No way did her Daddy do that! The reckoning never truly comes, Patricia will struggle with the abuse memories and her love for both her parents her entire life. There isn’t a magic word or moment that suddenly heals all, because like she said “what has been lived will never be erased”, it rises to the surface within her relationships with herself, her body and others. How can you ever truly understand such abuse? Children blame themselves when a parent harms them, be it mentally or physically. In Patricia’s case, her father was abusive towards her mother, each parent had their own scars in life but does that excuse or explain enabling sexual abuse? Is his violence towards her mother a reason to ignore her little girl was being exploited?

In this violent home, it was easier to just keep the peace. Mommy knew and did nothing. There was “one last time” at the age of 13, Patricia had to block it out in order to build a life. College was her way out, the only escape. Sexual promiscuity, abortions, abusive relationships, a young marriage that feels like falling off a cliff, drugs to numb her mind and body, these are just more escapes labeled adventure. We journey alongside pivotal moments in her 65 years of life, and even find her caring for the very parents who sexually and emotionally abused her. Does her mother ever apologize for her own guilt or acknowledge the truth? What do you think? It takes a lot of strength and courage, and more forgiveness than I know I have in my heart to be the person Patricia is.

A raw, painful read. It is so difficult to be a witness to the early pages (memories) of the sexual acts, and not feel rage building within’ for every child who has ever suffered or is being abused right as you read this. I wish prayers were enough, they’re not, it takes action and those who love the child enough to protect and speak up. I can’t even count on both hands how many child abuse survivors I have met in my life, not even including those around me who know of children who have been abused by family members, strangers, partners of parents. Sometimes it feels like the real epidemic of our times. This is one victim’s story in a sea of many.

Available Now from She Writes Press

(Published June 11, 2019)

 

White Dancing Elephants: Stories by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

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She’s probably my age, I realize suddenly, early forties, but she has not spent her life on mistakes.

This collection of stories by Chaya Bhuvaneswar is about more than being an immigrant or one’s ethnicity, it is also about feminism and LBGTQ women. From the start, the reader is on an emotional journey, living as long as it takes to read a story on the character’s breath. It begins with White Dancing Elephants, where a woman shares the aftermath of her miscarriage, gut wrenching and mind numbing, a trauma to think of what could have been, should have been. “Before my last morning with you, my love, I didn’t know rage.” Loss is a rage, a dead future. The writing doesn’t lessen in intensity, in The Story of the Woman Who Fell in Love With Death, there is a different sort of longing, a young boy relates a fictional tale with the loss of his own sister, the girl whom is never mentioned, and lives in the hidden photograph in his father’s sock drawer. Is she really a runaway, just what are the family’s dirty secrets? There is a line in the story that must express how many boys/men feel “Girls expected him to prove to them what boys were like: shallow, callous, laughing animals that could smell irresistible.” That in a book full of stories to make the unseen world of the female life visible, living particularly in the skin of women of color, in such an ugly world full of abuse and slurs, the author too was able to expose a vulnerability in a young male really touched me. Someone who wanted to be a boy good enough to rescue his own sister, heart wrenching! The body, how the female body is her own fault for every horror the world can think up to torture. It’s always her fault, isn’t it? How brutal and true the final line in the story (I won’t share it here, read it). I had a lump in my throat, thinking of what it means to be female in our world, thinking about my own daughter.

There are affairs and betrayals, fissures in friendship,illness, stories of sexual abuse, even if it’s just hinted at. Denial of one’s sexuality for the sake of family tradition, even if it means returning to India and ‘putting oneself in the ground’, burying oneself, rejecting our genuine identity and love for what’s expected. One of my favorites is Asha in Allston, and the ‘mannequin with hardware’ who definitely isn’t a HER! The horror in feeling jealous of perfection while trapped in a real failing human body, robbed of every future dream. I think I related in the sense that though there is no MALIN in my life, we women have a form of perfection in our face 24/7, and when illness enters… well… it’s that much more evident, of course in the story she lives with the ‘ideal female’ thanks to her husband’s job and genius. Tormented by the uselessness of her own body, impossible not to compare herself to this non-entity! Rage to turns to flame!

It’s an engaging provocative collection, the stories aren’t all about women as victims either. Sometimes they do selfish things, we’re imperfect creatures, as much as men, we just have to pay more for being human. As said in the life you save isn’t your own, “wrong decisions had all bloomed like seeds”. It got me to thinking about how much control we have, about decisions and chance how we often go against our own desires to please others, and about how much heavier choices are for females. Worse, about all the little girls in the world robbed of any choices at all, the orphan handler was pretty intense, dark.

A new voice in fiction, yes read her debut!

WINNER, DZANC BOOKS SHORT STORY COLLECTION PRIZE
WINNER, NARRATIVE MAGAZINE “TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK” FOR 2017

Finalist for the 2019 PEN American Robert Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection

Published October 2018

Dzanc Books

 

The Distance Between High and Low by Kaye Park Hinckley

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Peck and I were twins, too. In the darkest of watery wombs, we waited for the voice of our father, and heard silence.

In their old house in Highlow, Alabama on land that has been in their family for generations Lizzie and Peck (twins) struggle with more than just teenage angst. Their mother Lila holds the secret to who their father is, and how they long for him, no one more than sensitive Peck but how can anyone make sense of their mother’s world, what is true, what’s fiction? Peck has his beliefs, and he thinks their dad is an artist (just like their mother) living in Cincinnati, the very place Mamma once ran off to art school in her younger years! Finding a stand in daddy of sorts at the McSwain house next door, Peck hangs around Hobart (a transplant adoptee who isn’t a true native and never will be, despite how desperately he longs to fit in). Hobart has always been sweet on their mother though he has a meanness brewing inside of him and schemes. The cloud of his dark past keeps his heart in shadow, all he wants is what he feels should be his! Lila is as unreachable as the stars, holed up in her room painting portraits on her china, oblivious of her children and the rest of the world. Lila has always had a particular mental fragility that drug addiction and heartbreak exacerbated, returning home pregnant with twins years ago and broken from the wounds of the world. Pearl runs the family with the help of Half-Cheroke Indian, and protector, Izear carrying his own secret history but as much as son as can be. Lizzie and Peck want answers, they want a father but Lila is ‘deluded’, something even Hobart has known since he followed her as a young boy, even then a love-struck fool. Lizzie thinks Hobart is nothing but an intruder in their lives, but she has no idea just how deeply he is embedded in their stories.

Lizzie tolerates the presence of  seven-year old Little Benedict, sadder than all of them put together. He wants nothing more than to burrow into Lizzie and Peck’s family, for Pearl to be his own Grandma and Lila his mamma, but he already has one and she has whiskey to drink and his daddy as an enabler. The people are all watched over by Pearl’s cousin The Judge, contained in notes tracking the rich history of Highlow.  Peck discovers a secret that his family would be shocked to learn, one that forces Hobart to do his bidding and help him capture the Osprey he has been burning to own! No one is as good a hunter of wild things than Hobart. Sometimes what we desire can be our downfall.

No one will tell Lizzie anything, like who the blind man is that showed up to their open house. Peck too can’t tell her truths. Some things that are revealed do nothing but upset one’s entire world. “Knowing a circumstance and accepting it, are two distant things from each other as high is from low.” Knowledge isn’t necessarily power, more often than not it’s a burden. Lizzie will know Peck’s longing for that dangerous bird is more about filling the hole not having a daddy has made. Knowing things hurts!

Hobart has proof he belongs here, but a mean twist of fate fills him with shame and changes everything. It’s not just Pearl’s family whose desires are on loan! When tragedy consumes them all, Lizzie strikes out to fill the hole in her own heart only to learn she isn’t the only one who is devastated. Soon, she will understand her family’s history at Pearl’s telling and all the sorrowful ways history repeats itself. Everything is changing so fast, even Benedict “Benny” has a new sort of family, but there is still longing for vengeance inside of Lizzie as she watches Hobart, Mama’s answer is a gun, her way of coping! Hatred can get “pretty tiring” but forgiveness asks far too much, even if it’s Pearl’s way it seems diluted in Lila and Lizzie’s blood. So much confusion all just for the longing of a father’s love, not so easily replaced.

This is a book full of Highlow secrets, a family with a heavy history that challenges forgiveness and reminds us all that the whims of fate cannot be controlled, not even when one’s intentions are for the greater good. A sad tale.

Available Now from author Kaye Park Hinckley Finalist: William Faulkner/William Wisdom Competition. Finalist: Tuscany Prize for Fiction

Prytania Publishing

 

 

 

Farzaneh and the Moon by Matt Wilven

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She is muddy, distant, shaking with dark knowledge.

N. is at University in London, his young mind feasting on philosophy but it is Farzaneh’s world he really longs to access. Here is a young woman who feels and thinks deeply, someone who challenges him emotionally, who stimulates his intellect as well as his physical being. Both want to live in a way that doesn’t require just ‘going through the motions’. If it takes a little psychedelic help from nature to reach the deepest access of their minds, well who better to do it with than Farzaneh. She hasn’t been anchored to anyone since her father, there is pain she hasn’t confronted, and N. wants nothing more than to be the one who can keep her together inside. She is wildly interesting to him, but is this depth or something darker?

When is loving someone so blinding that you neglect to notice the rupture in their logic? When does the hunger for spiritual bliss blur the lines of what’s sane and what’s madness? What can N. really grasp about love at his tender age? In a sense, Farzaneh would annihilate herself if she could align with the moon. This is more than longing for some spiritual awakening, there is a creeping illness inside of her. One of the most honest moments however, speaks to N.’s state of mind when he is halfway through his course and says “I’m still none the wiser about any of them”, meaning the other students. He is too busy being wrapped up with his beloved, is it possible for healthy love to be so exclusive that the rest of the world and everyone within it disappears entirely? There is a shallow relationship he has earlier on, feeling completely disconnected but should communion with another eclipse sanity? Should we really want to merge so entirely that nothing else matters? “Everything is how she wanted it.” Nothing can ever be exactly as one person wants it, that’s not healthy.

Farzaneh’s obsession with the moon escalates, she can feel it in her very womb! N. needs to be with her, can’t live without her! Love can’t be wrong, love is a balm right? She likes her alone time, but he just wants live together! Normal day behaviors are disgusting her, eating- who needs to eat? She doesn’t want to be a person in this way anymore. N. will do anything to keep her, anything. But does real love bend itself this way, keep the peace, create an atmosphere that isn’t healthy  just to be in someone’s life?

This is far more than just meditation or harmless moon-bathing going on here, can a trip to Venice be the fix? The only thing sinking faster than Venice is Farzaneh’s mind, and it begs the question, just how suspect is N. in neglecting to rein her in? He is scared of confronting her behavior, even if he doesn’t tell us so, in the simple choice of letting it continue. Then comes the burial….

The ending, what are we to make of that? I wonder, was N. an unreliable character all this time? Just who is ill here?

This was a decent read, I see love differently from someone in their twenties, time seasons us I suppose, therefore a lot of N.’s decisions seem completely ill conceived. I just kept thinking, God save us from those who love us. Clearly Farzaneh needs something, but it isn’t a man’s love. It’s a peculiar tale, if nothing else it clearly demonstrates that we shouldn’t always fulfill the requests people we love ask of us. I’m not sure even in some alternate universe I would feel comfortable helping someone dig into the earth, so to speak.

Out Now

Legend Press

The Life of Death by Lucy Booth

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For I am there to carry you through those last moments, through the screaming and the seeping, through the fog, and deposit you softly, gently on the other side.

The story begins in 1590, twenty-three year old  Elizabeth “Lizzie” Murphy of Scotland is condemned to burn at the stake for witchcraft. A woman who has ‘a talent for poultice’, along with her sisters, aunts, mothers and women from the village took care of their people, who desperately had need of their cures, nurturing. It wasn’t long before accusations of evil, of witchery was on the tongues of those they helped. Soon, Lizzie strikes a deal with the devil and while burning before the jeers of the people, feels nothing thanks to him. She has, from the moment of her conception been the chosen one, for all Satan wants is for her to usher in the dead for all eternity.

Free of the burning licks from the fires of hate, Lizzie has spent centuries with brief glimpses into others life, taking them over to the other side. Steadfast in her duties as Death, she never falters, nor thinks about that life she traded so long ago too busy tangled up in the last moments of others. This reminded me of a show I loved, Quantum Leap, because she gets inside of people in guiding souls over but once she plays the devil’s game, it is with a far more tragic and at times darker bend. She is a dutiful worker until Tom. Just as the man becomes a widower, Lizzie is reminded of the burning desire for life and an all consuming love. It is time for Death to die, now if she can just outwit the devil, strike a deal with him so she may escape the monotony of taking lives. Then, and only then, will she be able to taste deep love, with Tom.

There isn’t a soul as dark as the beast’s, nor one as skilled at wagers. All she needs to do is take five lives in order to be released. But the catch, of course, is the devil picks who and relishes in the horror of their pain, the sorrow of their final moments. What happens when one of the Satan’s victim is too much bear? Will she change her mind, risk her only chance at love, freedom in the name of fairness? The devil is tricky tricky tricky… Will she allow the sun to set on the innocent for her own selfish desires? Can there ever be a happy ending when the devil is involved? Why is the devil so enamored of Lizzie, what is it about her that captured his attention while she was in her mother’s womb?

This novel raises the ever present question we have when death comes. Why him, why her? Why me? Death feels like a monster, indiscriminately picking us off, and stomping our feet at the inequality of it all releases us from nothing. For death truly is with us, an ever present shadow from the moment we are born. We can’t, not a one of us, escape it- not even by making a pact with the horned one. If you take the time to read About the Author, you discover Lucy Booth was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 and continued to write, including finishing this very novel. The cancer returned in 2014 and this time Lucy’s battle ended. I hate saying she lost her battle, because she didn’t, we don’t. We live each day and hope to wake up the next, but just like the souls in this novel learn, life isn’t guaranteed. There isn’t a bargain any one of us can make to extend our time.. eventually we come to the end. Age isn’t always factor, sometimes not even the state of our health, and that’s what makes life so precious, that at any moment it can slip through our fingers. So many choices are really just a circle, and you still end up where you started. We do the best with what time we have, and for some it is in mustering the strength to continue on as before and finish a novel.

Out Today!!!!  May 2, 2019

Unbound