Tag Archives: book review

Memoir and the Construct of Race

My maternal grandfather loved to tell stories to whoever would listen. His stories were all based in fact and never ventured into the realm of fantasy. He never tried to catch our attention with a bold and unsubstantiated claim. He just told about the past, as he knew it or had heard about it.

So when he told me that we had African ancestry, I believed him. I grew up thinking that my white family was, in fact, “part black. I found this information fascinating. Maybe it was one of the seeds that led to me studying history and race in literature.

Imagine my disappointment when I got my DNA results and found zero African ancestry among my genes. Could Grandpa have been wrong? Could he have lied to me? I think he told the truth as he understood it. My theory: one of his cousins was married to an African-American man for a brief time, and that meant that her ex was now part of our family. Grandpa telling me that we were a “biracial” family of sorts was the greatest gift he ever gave me–even better than his stories and the family’s antique photograph collection. Growing up as a white kid in the sixties, yet thinking you have African ancestry, is a helpful antidote to the effects of racism floating around you in society.

Now think of growing up as a white girl in mid-century America, with a father given to racist expressions, and only learning as an adult that your mother was (legally) a black woman passing as white and keeping the secret from everyone! That is the case for Gail Lukasik who wrote a memoir, White Like Her, about her search for the truth about her mother’s roots.

The woman on the cover of the book is Gail’s mother.

Gail’s story was first showcased on Genealogy Roadshow, and afterwards Gail, a mystery writer, began to write this memoir. The book details the genealogical research she and others did to find Gail’s family’s quintessentially American story. I was fascinated in the story because I am so interested in family history, American history, genealogy, and mysteries. What a great text to introduce to those who do not know the one-drop rule and other stupid laws in the history of Jim Crow.

I did wonder a few times if some people might be put off by the who begat whom, but it’s presented in a very cohesive and interesting way. I’m not sure how the book is structured, although her appearance on the show is the glue for a large portion of the book–and then the final section is about meeting her “new” family members and building a relationship with them. What one comes away from the book with, more than anything, is that race is a construct, not a real thing.

This book reminded me of another book I read over ten years ago. Carol Channing’s memoir Just Lucky I Guess might seem to be as far from the story of introverted Gail Lukasik as possible. But it’s not because very early on in the memoir, Carol lets her readers know that she has biracial heritage. The way she found out was kind of shitty. When she was leaving for college (at the impossibly young age of sixteen) her mother told her that she was “part Negro” because her father was black, born in Georgia. Her mothers says she is telling her now “‘because the Darwinian law shows that you could easily have a black baby.'” Then she made some statements about the large size of Carol’s eyes and her dance ability that were racist, at least by today’s standards. This happened in 1937.

Although a few readers rob Carol Channing of a star or two in their reviews of her book because the book is uniquely structured, I think the structure follows Carol’s personality. I found it an enormously fascinating and satisfying read. You can’t help but adore Channing after listening to her voice for any length of time. What a warm, witty, sweet, generous person. I had no idea until I read her memoir that her ancestry was biracial. After all, she made her living as a blonde! I wonder how many others don’t know this part of the Carol Channing story. If you want to be charmed, read Just Lucky I Guess.

I’ve been doing little bits of writing almost every day. I had two travel days, and I couldn’t write, but made up for those omissions on the other days. Woot! #amstillwriting A little poetry, a couple of short creative nonfiction pieces.

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Book Review of Jen Payne’s “Evidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind”

To help heal our planet and ourselves, we first have to look outward to go inward. Jen Payne’s new book of poetry and photographs inspires us to do just that. Using the unique and cohesive symbol of the pocket dental flosser, Evidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind explores nature and our place within our environment.

While it is not unusual to find a book’s theme related to nature and loss, Payne’s book turns loss personal and unnecessarily tragic by showing the wastefulness inherent in our actions. Payne directs the focus on the environment by her obsessive collection of photos of discarded dental flossers which serve to remind the reader of our most common actions and the consequences of those actions.

Shaped like little coping saws, the flossers are depicted lying where they were found—on pavement, pavers, dirt, concrete, and rock. Such common objects become centerpieces of individual works of art, but in their careless beauty, there is a glutted feeling of unwellness as if we, in our thoughtlessness, are too much for nature.

Payne’s poetry is the nuanced, living force of the collection. What drives that force is a love of nature’s beauties, a love that Payne wants readers to experience.

I will preach from the pulpit,
soar reconnaissance with the pileated,
nursemaid a wood duck’s brood,
survey the marsh with an egret,
meditate with the painted turtles
on a rock or the pine felled in a storm,
no matter, my profit immeasurable.

Though readers can feel the redemption of going inside ourselves to be at one with nature and the spiritual force, Payne continues to remind us how close we are to losing it all by our wastefulness.

On a personal level, once I finished reading Evidence of Flossing, I felt more in tune with nature and more mindful, but also began to notice what I had never spotted before: little plastic-framed flossers lying on the ground. Here is the flosser I spotted in the parking lot at the bank the morning after I finished the book. That was the first of many.

Soon after, I visited my dentist and told him about Payne’s book. He said that when we invented the flosser (and he did say “we”), we thought, as with much technology and “progress,” that they were an improvement over pieces of dental floss, never foreseeing that they would add to the waste on our planet. He wondered if birds get their bills caught in the flossers. Since I have been cutting apart plastic six-pack rings so that wildlife do not get stuck in them my entire adult life, I saw he was right about the dangers of the design. At least loose dental floss can be used by birds as material for their nests.

Look how Payne’s book got me thinking about the environment and sharing with others. Evidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind is inspirational, lyrical, instructive, and not to be missed. It is a book to be shared with others in a groundswell of caring for Earth and all our planet’s inhabitants.

Click on the book cover to purchase through Amazon.

Photo Credits:

 

Book Cover, Evidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind (Flosser No. 007-1214 – Diner, Connecticut, December 2014, by Jen Payne)

About the Author:

 

Jen Payne is inspired by those life moments that move us most — love and loss, joy and disappointment, milestones and turning points. Her writing serves as witness to these in the form of poetry, creative non-fiction, flash fiction and essay. When she is not exploring our connections with one another, she enjoys writing about our relationships with nature, creativity, and mindfulness, and how these offer the clearest path to finding balance in our frenetic, spinning world.

 

Very often, her writing is accompanied by her own photography and artwork. As both a graphic designer and writer, Jen believes that partnering visuals and words layers the intentions of her work, and makes the communication more palpable.

 

In 2014, she published LOOK UP! Musings on the Nature of Mindfulness, a collection of essays, poems and original photography. Evidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind is her second book.

 

Jen is the owner of Three Chairs Publishing and Words by Jen, a graphic design and creative services company founded in 1993, based in Branford, Connecticut. She is a member of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, the Branford Arts and Cultural Alliance, the Connecticut Poetry Society, Guilford Arts Center, the Guilford Poets Guild, and the Independent Book Publishers Association.

 

Installations of her poetry were featured in Inauguration Nation an exhibition at Kehler Liddell Gallery in New Haven (2017), and Shuffle & Shake at the Arts Council of Greater New Haven (2016). Her writing has been published by The Aurorean, Six Sentences, the Story Circle Network, WOW! Women on Writing, and The Perch, a publication by the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health.

 

You can read more of her writing on her blog Random Acts of Writing, http://www.randomactsofwriting.net.

 

A big thank you to WOW! Women on Writing for including me in this blog tour! 

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An Interview about Poetry and Genealogy

Jorie at Jorie Loves a Story interviewed me on the topics of genealogy, poetry, and Kin Types. Her questions were so thought-provoking, and I really enjoyed where they took me!

Check it out if you can.


Also, Amazon has 19 reviews up for Kin Types if you’re still on the fence about reading it.

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Submission Advice from Robert Okaji, author of FROM EVERY MOMENT A SECOND

Today I want to introduce you to Robert Okaji, poet and the writer of the new Finishing Line Press chapbook From Every Moment a Second. Robert’s poems are relatively short and seem simple. I said seem. Each polished gem is the kind of poem you fall into, without worrying if you will “get” it or not, and an array of meanings will wash over you without effort on your part, but the reward is great –an emotional and intellectual payoff.

Robert is published regularly in literary magazines. So I asked him for advice for readers about submitting to magazines. This is what he wrote for us.

 

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Newer poets occasionally ask me for advice on how/where to get published. What follows expands a reply I made to a comment on my blog in August, 2014. I can speak only from my experience, thus any advice I offer should be taken with a huge grain of salt. But here goes:

Determine who you are as a writer, and where your work has a realistic chance of being published. What, you say, how do I do this? Think about your favorite living poets, those poets you’d most like to be associated with, whose work has influenced your writing, and with whom you’d like to “converse” through poetry.

Where does their work appear? Look at their lists of publications, choose the smaller, lesser known literary journals first, and read them cover to cover. When you find in these same journals other writers whose work appeals to you, examine their publication lists. After a while you’ll notice that certain journal titles repeat. Compile a list of these, and consider them your “targets.” Read them. If your sense of aesthetics meshes, send them your best work.

This is not a quick process, but sending your poetry to publications that publish the poets writing the type of poetry you like is much more effective than haphazardly scattering your work across the poetic landscape. In other words, be selective. Think. And always read submission requirements. If a journal says “no rhyming poetry,” don’t send them any. You get the picture. Don’t waste your time. Don’t waste theirs – most lit mags are labors of love. The editors earn no money, often, if not usually, bearing all publication costs. Be kind to them.

Also, look for newer publications calling for submissions. They may be more amenable to your work, and the competition may be a bit lighter. How do you find these? Read Poets & Writers. Check out New Pages‘ calls for submissions. Facebook’s “Calls for Submission” group is worth joining. Follow Trish Hopkinson’s blog. Join various writing communities on social media. Look around!

You might also consider subscribing to Duotrope, if only to determine what certain publications’ acceptance rates are. For example is it worthwhile to submit to a publication that accepts only 1/2 of one percent of submissions? Or would your time be better spent submitting to publications accepting 5% to 20% of what’s sent to them? One can over-think this, of course, but knowing the odds can increase your chances. Of course ego comes into play, and sometimes you just have to send your work to one of the “unattainables.” And hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Duotrope‘s “News” tab also provides links to new markets or those that have recently opened or closed to submissions.

When your work is rejected (and it will be – everyone gets rejected), look closely at it. Was it indeed as ready as you originally thought? If so, send it back out. If not, revise it. Keep writing. Keep revising. Keep sending.

I submit my work cautiously, as if editors are looking for excuses to NOT publish me. This means that I take my time and ensure that every piece I send out is flawless in appearance – no typos, no grammatical errors, etc. Unless a publication specifically requests more, my cover letters are brief and say very little but “thanks for the opportunity” and might at most contain a sentence or two regarding biographical details or previous publications. Anything else is superfluous – I don’t want to give them any reason to not accept my work.

Again, this is just my approach to getting published. I’m sure that other, more successful writers have better processes. And of course I ignore my own advice from time to time. Send out those poems. Good luck!

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From Every Moment a Second can be found on Amazon.

 

The son of a career soldier, Robert Okaji moved from place to place throughout his childhood. He holds a BA in history from The University of Texas at Austin, served without distinction in the U.S. Navy, lived the hand-to-mouth existence of a bookstore owner, and worked in a library and as a university administrator. He lives in Texas with his wife, two dogs, some books and a beverage refrigerator stocked with craft beer.

He has never been awarded a literary prize, but at age eight won a goat-catching contest.

Recent publications include the chapbooks From Every Moment a Second (Finishing Line Press), If Your Matter Could Reform (Dink Press), two micro-chapbooks, You Break What Falls and No Eye but the Moon’s: Adaptations from the Chinese (Origami Poems Project), a mini-digital chapbook, Interval’s Night (Platypus Press), and “The Circumference of Other,” a collection appearing in Ides: A Collection of Poetry Chapbooks (Silver Birch Press). His work has appeared in Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, Boston Review, Hermeneutic Chaos, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Panoply, Eclectica, Clade Song, Into the Void, High Window, West Texas Literary Review and elsewhere. Visit his blog, O at the Edges, at http://robertokaji.com/.

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Memoir Mumblings

There’s a great cartoon by Dan Piraro (Bizarro.com) out that I have decided it’s safer not to have on this post for possible copyright reasons. A woman writer is signing books at a book store. The name of her book is called My Miserable Life. haha, an obvious memoir. Her parents are apologizing to her, saying that if they had known that she was going to be a writer they would have been better parents. Too bad she wasn’t born with a warning for her parents.

Beware: a writer is born. Treat her well!

I find it funny because anybody writing a memoir that involves their childhood is likely to find flaws in their upbringing. Heck, most of us do anyway.

My memoir manuscript (such as it is) is out with beta readers right now. Nervous? Me? Hah, yup!

On the subject of memoir, I just finished Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas, a pseudonym. I gave it a 2 out of 5. I’m a generous rater. If you have read it, what did you think? I felt I was being played. Not totally sure in what way. The obvious goal was to persuade readers that sociopaths are special and are a boon to society. Apparently she is real, an ex-law professor named Jamie Rebecca Lund. Apparently the book (and its creepy admissions) caused her to lose a great gig as a law professor at BYU.

But the creepiness of story and author are not why I gave the book a 2. It’s repetitive and quite dry for very long passages. Copy editing was well done though!

Finally, a memoir needs to have a very trustworthy narrator, and that is where this book could never have worked. By the writer’s admission, sociopaths lie and manipulate. So how could I trust her?

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Fall Book Review: “Kin Types,” by Luanne Castle

Hope your Thanksgiving holiday has been a lovely one, if you celebrate.
Robin gives Kin Types 4 out of 4 stars!!! Check out her review.

witlessdatingafterfifty

Weaving newspaper articles about

family events, photographs shown by

her grandfather, stories shared

through family members

and research sifted through

these sources comes an

extraordinary book!

“Kin Types” is hard to put

down and also difficult in parts

to absorb the everyday tragic

lives depicted within these pages.

I was drawn in by both the

Beauty in the love of a young

woman to a man whose hands

smelled like herrings and the

tendency to flinch and wish to look

away from the Horror of fire and flesh.

I wish to encapsulate the poems,

prose and summaries of lives,

while still encouraging and

enticing you to read more

vignettes for yourself.

~ Lessons from family are

varied in Luanne Castle’s first,

“Advice from My Forebears.”

Here’s an example,

“Sit on my finger,

nobody ever

fell off.”

~ Second entry will catch

you, grab you, make you wince

as you hear…

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Savvy Verse & Wit Review of KIN TYPES

Serena at Savvy Verse & Wit has given a lovely review of Kin Types. Her favorite poem of the collection is mine, too, about my great-grandmother Cora, “What Lies Inside.”

Go HERE for the review.

 

Cora DeKorn Zuidweg

I hope everyone who celebrates has a person or persons to be with tomorrow for Thanksgiving. Here’s a photo of another woman in Kin Types, my paternal grandmother–with her son, my father’s twin brother, at our house for Thanksgiving in the early 70s. She is the one who owned the mailbox marker in A Sign to Remember

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!!

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A New Review Brings Up a Topic for Discussion

Today, a new review of Kin Types was published here at Jorie Loves a Story. 

This review is very cool in how she interprets so many of the poems. She shows a wonderful sense of what each piece is about.

Then at the end, Jorie inserts what is essentially a caveat, what she calls “Fly in the Ointment: Content Note.” She takes exception to my inclusion of a case of animal cruelty and murder in the poem “Once and Now.”

As you might guess, I really “get” her complaint and her sensitivity to harm to animals. Animals mean the world to me (in a literal sense, as well as figurative).

The poet in me, though, felt a need to not turn away from where the poem simply had to go. It’s a poem about war, in this case WWI. And it’s about zenophobia, a fear of foreigners, which showed itself as cruelty to immigrant Germans. That a dog suffers is typical of how war can work. What happens to the animals, both wild and in homes and zoos, when battles are fought?

But it’s not a poem about the dog. The dog is a very real dog who suffered, and the people are real people who suffered, and the dog is also a metaphor. Ok, that’s my “defense.” But I can truly see her point. It’s kind of like Facebook, who wants to go there and see petition requests with photos and comments about animals being harmed? (guilty)

What is YOUR opinion? Should I have left out the dog?

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Review: Kin Types by Luanne Castle

A new review up todayfor Kin Types.

Diary of an Eccentric

Source: Review copy from author

Kin Types is the newest poetry collection by Luanne Castle in which she recreates the stories of her ancestors. (Read the collection’s opening poem, “Advice from My Forebears” and the inspiration for it here.) She draws you in right away with lines similar to what many of us have heard from our elders, like “Quit scowling or your face will freeze that way” (“Advice from My Forebears,” page 2). I soon found myself immersed in the poems about Dutch immigrants who made their way to Michigan and forged a life, often difficult, judging from many of the poems, but hopeful as well in that these lines are written by their descendant.

From a mother who rushes into a house fire (“An Account of a Poor Oil Stove Bought off Dutch Pete”) to the fast-forwarding and rewinding that recounts the ups and downs of a…

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Book Review: Kin Types by Luanne Castle

Love this review of Kin Types by poet and writer Jen Payne.

In case you’re getting tired of seeing the same book cover (haha), here’s a portrait of my great-grandmother Cora who is in the book more than once.

It is no surprise that for the three nights since reading Kin Types, I have had vivid dreams of my own family. It is no surprise because Luanne Castle’s thought-full book presents the concept of family in such a palpable manner, one feels as if you have sat across the table from an aunt, a grandmother, a cousin, and heard family stories that could very well be your own.

Layered with poems and prose, you turn a page to reveal the next colorful character, the faded memory, the texture of a detail only a poet would think to include. The result is a beautiful collage of the family experience — its loves and losses, its joys and sorrows, its tragedies and secrets.

How clever of Castle to include the modern-day theory of behavioral epigenetics, essentially we are that collage, we are the stories, they are in our DNA. It…

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