Quickie Reviews: Personal Stories

My 2017 reading started off slow, but I’ve kicked things into high gear in the last few weeks. So of course I have a review backlog. Let’s hit the high (and low) points, shall we?

Work Rules!

Work Rules! Laszlo BockThe subtitle on this is a mouthful: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead. It’s got some good ideas on transforming company culture, but most of it seems pretty “pie in the sky” and a little bit “We’re Google and we’re awesome.” I’ve had some good conversations about it with co-workers, though.

The Princess Diarist

The Princess Diarist, Carrie FisherCarrie Fisher’s last book before her death in December 2016. She was a fascinating, complicated woman, and I want to learn more about her. Unfortunately I don’t think this was the right book for that. The Princess Diarist is a bit disjointed, and focuses mostly on her fling with Harrison Ford during Star Wars filming. It just not as interesting as I hoped it would be. But she’s got a great writing voice, and fortunately wrote several other books that promise to tell more about her life.

The Portable Dorothy Parker

The Portable Dorothy ParkerThis one’s been sitting on my shelf for years, and is part of my 2017 Off the Shelf Reading Challenge. I’ve gone all the way through it, but probably read only about half. I love Parker’s poetry and letters, but have trouble with her short stories (anybody’s short stories, really — I don’t often like them). She was always better at short form writing than long form. And those quips! “It is true that he is so hard-boiled you could roll him on the White House lawn.”

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The Write Stuff: Off to the Races

Writing Challenge: The Write StuffI kicked off The Write Stuff last month in an effort to force myself to exercise my creative writing muscles in 2017. I’m trying to be my own accountability buddy, so I set some goals and am doing my best to meet them.

It’s early days, but let’s see how it’s going.

Goal 1: Finish four short stories in 2017

It wouldn’t be a true Amy effort without a spreadsheet!

The Write Stuff progress, February 2017

The first couple columns are self-explanatory. Once I have a decent first draft (column C), I post it to Scribophile (column D — more on Scribophile below). I use feedback to create a second draft (column E), then post the new draft to Scribophile again (column F).

I’m planning to consider a story “finished” once I incorporate feedback on the second draft. That’s probably not how it works in the publishing world, but I’m not planning to submit these for publication. Plus, I need to set some definition of “finished” so I know when it’s okay to stop futzing with my writing.

You may recognize a couple of the story names from my 2016 writing prompt exercises. I’ve taken those simpler versions and blown them out extensively. Does this count as cheating? Maybe, but I needed to start somewhere.
Right now I’m well ahead of this goal, but as you can see I haven’t even had an idea for a fourth story yet.

Goal 2: Do as many of the 642 Tiny Things to Write About as I can

I got 642 Tiny Things to Write About as a Christmas present, but I’ve barely touched it. I’m trying to be more purposeful about doing a couple of these a day. They really are tiny things, and I’m hoping one of them will give me an idea for another story.

Goal 3: Join a writing community (and actually share stuff for feedback)

The only thing scarier than making a goal to write is making a goal to let strangers critique that writing.

via GIPHY

I talked to my good friend Google, who suggested I check out Scribophile. And gurl, it is awesome!

The first thing that impressed me was the website itself: it looks fantastic, and the voice they use is clear and personable. I love that you have to critique others’ writing before you can post your own, and so far every user I’ve interacted with has been kind and offered helpful suggestions for my work.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of Scribophile’s offerings, but joining has already been the best decision I’ve made in 2017.

Goal 4: Document it all on this blog

I’m planning to post an update once per month. I want to keep my momentum going. I don’t know if my writing will ever “see the light of day” in any kind of publication, but I’m not worried about it. For now I just want to enjoy the ride!

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Review: The Scarlet Sisters

The Scarlet Sisters, Myra MacPhersonVictoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claftin were two of the children of a backwater snake oil salesman. The sisters spent their childhoods telling fortunes and handing out quack cures. They were not destined for great things.

But the Gilded Age had a habit of propelling the least likely people to unimaginable heights. In a time when women were still considered property, Victoria and Tennessee did the unthinkable: they fought for women’s fiscal, political, and sexual independence.

Ahead of their time

These ladies were badasses.

They were friends with Cornelius Vanderbilt, Susan B. Anthony, and Karl Marx; they went toe-to-toe with Anthony Comstock, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher.

They were the first women to open a brokerage firm (the second woman-owned firm opened almost 100 years later), as well as the first female publishers of a radical weekly newspaper. In 1870, 50 years before women could vote, Victoria Woodhull announced her candidacy for President of the United States; a year later, Tennessee ran for Congress.

I’ve read so much about American history and all of these people; how the hell have I not heard of Victoria and Tennessee?

Fact vs. fiction

According to author Myra MacPherson, historians and biographers sometimes take the saying, “Never let the facts stand in the way of a good feature story” a little too seriously.

But it’s not all their fault. The sisters — perhaps embarrassed by their upbringing and interested in being fascinating figures — changed and embellished and ignored aspects of their lives when it suited. Newspapers were interested in sales, not facts, and sensationalized everything the sisters did.

The Scarlet Sisters is the result of MacPherson’s deep research into Victoria and Tennessee’s lives, including thousands of pages of books, letters, newspaper articles, and court records. It chronicles their sudden rise to fame, their involvement with the suffrage movement, and the scandal that eventually, if temporarily, ruined them.

In like lions, out like lambs

Victoria and Tennessee were popular, but they were also vilified. Rumors and scandal followed them wherever they went, and their radical views (particularly around “free love”) made them pariahs to the same movements they were trying to help.

I think at the end of the day, they were just tired. Tired of hiding and reinventing their histories, of being sued and jailed, of being eviscerated in the papers, of constantly having to defend their legitimacy as human beings.

Like many famous people of the Gilded Age, the sisters faded into obscurity in their later years. They moderated their radical beliefs, and in many ways became like the women they once seemed to pity and despise.

Did they truly believe all the things they said in speeches, their newspaper, and in court? Or was it merely another attempt to reinvent themselves, to escape from a dismal childhood and become fabulously wealthy and famous in the process?

We’ll probably never know the whole truth. But that doesn’t make Victoria and Tennessee any less worthy of mention in the history books. They were intelligent, courageous women far ahead of their time, and I think everyone should know more about them.

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Review: Love, InshAllah

Love, InshAllah, Ayesha Mattu and Nura MaznaviFinding love is hard, no matter who you are. But it might be a bit harder for American Muslim women.

The 25 women who contributed essays to Love, InshAllah are planted between two worlds that seem very different on the surface. They are independent American women with careers and ambitions; they are also Muslim women who want to follow the rules of their faith. At times these two things seem incompatible.

These writers lead very different lives than most Americans, but dig a little deeper and you’ll see that we all want the same thing: happiness.

Interesting and challenging

For more than a decade, most Americans have not been encouraged to think well of the Muslim faith, or Muslim people. The religious and cultural divide seems too big.

But this book’s writers and editors aren’t interested in excuses. They want readers to understand that we all face the same challenges. How do we find love? How do we reconcile our faith and our culture? What do we do when love disappoints us? Where do we find the courage to stick with — or break — religious and family traditions?

This book was not a comfortable read for me. At first I thought it was because the writers are Muslim, and there are aspects of the religion with which I disagree. But then I realized I’d be just as uncomfortable reading stories like this written by Catholics, Baptists, or Jewish people.

Whether I’m right or not, I think most religions are too oppressive. Islam may have a reputation as being the “most” oppressive, but I know women of other religions who experience just as much pressure to stay pure until marriage, marry young, have children, and practice their faith perfectly.

I didn’t like much of what I read. These women have so many expectations placed upon them, and feel unworthy and unlovable — or face ostracism from their families — if they don’t do things “right.” That’s not something I can understand, regardless of what religion they practice.

The stories I enjoyed most were the ones in which the author took control of her own destiny, and synthesized what she believed are the best pieces of being American with the best pieces of being Muslim. There was the girl who met a man online and asked her parents to arrange a marriage with, and the woman who joined a polygynous marriage after her divorce.

The creators of Love, InshAllah shared their stories because they wanted to poke holes in the stereotypes they see playing out in the media and pop culture. The book gave me some interesting insights into the logistics of Islam — how conversion works, how divorce works, how arranged marriages work, etc. — but in the end I think it ended up reaffirming my dislike of religion in general.

Like the authors of these stories, I want to find my own way through life.

(I read this book as part of the Monthly Motif Challenge. January’s challenge was to read a book with a character — or written by an author — of a race, religion, or sexual orientation other than my own.)

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Review: This House is Haunted

This House is Haunted, John BoyneHeartbroken after the loss of her father, schoolteacher Eliza Caine is desperate to leave London. When she applies for a position as a governess at a home outside Norwich, she is surprised at her potential employer’s response: he doesn’t ask about her education or for references, or even tell her the number and age of the children she will be teaching.

Her arrival in Norwich does not allay her unease. First someone tries to push her in front of an oncoming train. Then when she arrives at her destination, she is greeted by two children who insist that she is the only adult in the house.

Eliza’s conversations with the village’s residents — including the family lawyer — do not bear much fruit either. People are afraid to tell Eliza anything about the home, the children, or their parents.

Strange and awful things are happening at Gaudlin Hall. Eliza has never been prone to hysterics; but after a pair of invisible hands tries to push her out a window, the young woman knows one thing for certain: this house is haunted.

Heebie-jeebies, anyone?

Nothing hits the spot like a ghost story — especially one with Gothic undertones. This House is Haunted was published in 2013, but it reads like something straight from the mind of Horace Walpole or Wilkie Collins.

It starts out placidly enough, with the narrator and her father going to hear the author Charles Dickens speak. Mr. Caine is out of the way soon enough, however, and Eliza is off to Gaudlin Hall.

Her students, Isabella and Eustace, are bright but strange. Eustace always seems to be on the verge of spilling every secret he’s ever learned, and Isabella is a disconcerting mix of childish and worldly.

Eliza is smart, kind, and — as it turns out — very brave. She’s determined to learn the truth about Gaudlin Hall and its inhabitants, and to protect them if she must.

As with other novels in this genre, though, I found the characters the littlest bit flat. The plot takes precedence; every character is there to move that plot along and keep the story moving forward. I didn’t feel very connected to any of them.

The story itself was excellent, of course. Some lovely twists and a few truly chilling moments. If you’re a fan of The Woman in White or Nine Coaches Waiting, I recommend you pick up a copy of This House is Haunted.

Maybe just don’t read it late at night.

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