I WOKE UP DEAD AT THE MALL: A YA Book Review

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A few weeks ago I told the Facebook- and Twitter-spheres that I’d like to get some practice writing book reviews on my blog, in the hope of pitching reviews to newspapers or magazines in the future, and (with any luck) helping out a few fellow writers in the meantime. My friend and excellent writer Emily Freeman (Did you happen to catch her review of Dan Barry’s THE BOYS IN THE BUNKHOUSE in the Sunday, May 15 Star Tribune?) introduced me to Kathleen Glasgow, whose book GIRL IN PIECES I reviewed here a few weeks ago. Kathleen then introduced me to a contingent of other debut YA novelists, many of whom were kind enough to agree to have me practice my mad reviewing skills on their new books. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be reviewing YA books in my next several blog entries.

A question Emily and I had in one of our more recent conversations is What makes a book YA? If you recall, I thought that GIRL IN PIECES, although marketed as YA, could easily be read, enjoyed and mulled over by a larger audience. According to The Guardian, a “middle-grade” book might be suitable for ages 10-12; “teen,” 12-14; and YA, 14+. YA, according to this source, “is more likely to deal frankly with sex, tackle challenging issues and adult relationships, and feature swearing.” (The “new adult” category, FYI, presumably aimed at some older demographic than YA, has, according to The Guardian, the reputation as “YA with sexytimes.” I’m just telling you what I read.) Also in this Guardian article is something many of us know intuitively: that as many as 55% of YA titles are bought by adults–some, of course, purchased for young adults, but others enjoying Harry Potter (i.e., ageless) popularity.

I WOKE UP DEAD AT THE MALL is Judy Sheehan’s debut YA novel. She has written two other novels for adults, WOMEN IN HATS (2008) and AND BABY MAKES TWO (2005), and  is a playwright and performer of considerable renown. What is evident from the very first page of I WOKE UP DEAD AT THE MALL is that Sheehan is also very funny. 16-year-old Sarah Evans’s narration of the story of her life after death begins as she wakes up in Minnesota’s Mall of America. Still dressed in the hideous bridesmaid’s dress she was wearing when she died, Sarah’s smart, incisive, take-no-prisoners voice made me laugh out loud on many occasions.

The cast of characters Sheehan has pulled together in Sarah’s death “cohort” includes several refreshingly un-stereotypical young people (a teen boy who is obsessed with skin care products, e.g., and another who is an excellent cook) who, like Sarah, have been murdered. Harry, Lacey, Nick, Alice and Declan each, in turn, tells his or her “death story;” in some cases–but not Sarah’s–there’s little to no mystery as to who killed who and why. Sarah, however, is loathe to believe and slow to accept that anyone would want to murder her. The solution to the puzzle of her murder resolves in a timely and engaging fashion.

It is not the only puzzle solved in the story, however. Friendships and romances emerge and falter, in ways perfectly imaginable among these short-changed teens. Kids “learn to move on” from the nasty circumstances of their deaths, or not, by revisiting a day (of their choice) in their life and attending their own funeral. Also threaded through are unusual powers for the dead–e.g., to be seen or heard by the living–that some of the teens possess. Sarah’s is introduced early on in the story, and her difficult history with a kind of prescience (shared, in her lifetime, with her mother) serves as a foil for consideration of how we live with the gifts and burdens we are given.

Sheehan pokes a little fun at just about everything traditionally associated with eternity. The figure of a prime mover in the afterlife, e.g., is called BOY, an acronym for “Boss of You.” (The dead teenagers’ guide, a woman named Bertha, describes BOY as “a gathering of the collective wisdom of humankind.”) When we eventually meet it, it is remarkably childish, impulsive, and cruelly arbitrary in its power. Similarly, the rules for when and how the dead can visit and return from visits to the living are strict and yet they’re broken repeatedly, and subject to the teenagers’ manipulations. It’s not only an adolescent’s likely notion of most systems of authority, but a perfect set-up for drama and suspense.

In spite of its humor and entire lack of any kind of preachiness, this is not a cynical book. Allowance is made for both hauntings and angels. Revenge is generally frowned upon, although most people get what’s coming to them. Life on earth is sometimes amazing and sometimes…well, sometimes humans fall short. For example, on a visit back to her home base of Washington Square Park, Sarah muses, “Was it this wondrous when I was alive? How could I have missed it?” and yet a little earlier Nick comforts Lacey, shaken by the absence of people she considered friends at her funeral, with the comment, “Maybe sucking is the best they can do.” “Moving on” to what’s next is actually an exercise, for each of these kids, in self-assessment and self-acceptance that most living people, old and young, should consider.

It would be easy and enjoyable for a parent to read this book, and I’d recommend buying two if it’s purchased for a YA reader in the household. Not for a daily book club kind of drill, but for casual and spontaneous discussion of what it means to live when it’s inevitable we will die.

 

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders in MN: How Can We Do Better?

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I’m sad today for number of reasons. It’s my dad’s birthday; he would have been 87 years old. He died three years ago so it’s clear he had a long life and those of us who loved him know it was a good life, too. I’d so like to call the last telephone number at which I could reach him, which I keep next to my phone to this day. I know I’d probably (and seriously, I couldn’t delete that ‘probably’) get someone else, another person now living out their last days in that room. But as long as I don’t actually pick up the phone I can imagine he’d answer, with a voice stronger than it had been in years and maybe calling me by the goofy name he had for me when I was small. He was a good man and a great father. I miss him terribly, every day.

I’m sad, too, because I’m waiting for a big-time judgement of my work from some big-time players. I’m not good at waiting. And right now I’m not dealing particularly well with what happens if I’m turned down, once again.

So add to that the story on fetal alcohol spectrum disorders on the front page of today’s Star Tribune and I’m in a considerable funk. As you can see in the above (and courtesy of the University of Washington, Seattle),

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) is an umbrella term describing the range of effects that can occur in an individual whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These effects may include physical, mental, behavioral, and/or learning disabilities with possible lifelong implications.

You may be more familiar with the term fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), but apparently that has now been rolled into FASD, with FAS simply being the most severe form of FASD. It makes sense, since no one knows what level of alcohol consumption in the mother will have negative effects on a fetus. I think the particular consumption limit is likely unique in all the ways people are unique, plus the ways a fetus is unique in itself and its development.

There is a particularly irritating graphic in the Star Tribune article, with this heading:

PUTTING INFANTS AT RISK
 In 2013, Minnesota had the nation’s second-highest rate of alcohol consumption among women of childbearing age (ages 18-44), a key risk factor for FASD in newborns.

I find it irritating because it will irritate a lot of people, this apparently broad brush painting any woman who drinks as putting a child at risk for FASD. So I checked what fraction of MN pregnancies are unplanned, or unintended, and the number doesn’t help: 40%, according to a study by the Guttmacher Institute.

No wonder the risk factor is alcohol consumption in any woman of childbearing age. If a woman able to conceive a child drinks alcohol, and the rate of unintended pregnancy is 40%, it’s not, in fact, so terribly unlikely she may be exposing a fetus to FASD.

What a mess.

I would suggest it’s a mess for one reason not considered in the article: this percentage of unintended pregnancies. The article actually is taking a different, perfectly legitimate direction: letting people know how to recognize the signs of FASD, so that kids can get the proper intervention. But I’d like to back the discussion up a little bit, to these unintended pregnancies.

We can get all hot under the collar that the Star Tribune graphic, in particular, seems to be saying that if you’re a woman who can get pregnant you shouldn’t drink, or that if you are a woman who is engaging in sexual activity then if you really love your baby (which you didn’t intend to conceive), you’d better sign off alcohol for 40 years.

These notions aren’t realistic. What IS realistic is better education of women and particularly teens in the use of effective birth control, and improved access to the best kind of birth control for each and every sexually active woman.

THAT’S the graphic I want to see: Alcohol consumption among women of childbearing age who are NOT using birth control. Not to blame, but to work on revealing and getting that number of unintended pregnancies down. This other graphic just gets people angry, gets their hackles up about women’s rights and paternalism and what about men? Why shouldn’t they stop drinking, too? Wouldn’t that be fair?

Personally, I think the concept of fairness here is entirely beside the point. It is useless to argue that it is fair or unfair for women to have the biologic responsibility of pregnancy. We do. Some of us like to drink. Nobody should be getting drunk on a regular basis for so many reasons it hurts my heart. But neither can you, realistically, expect all women of childbearing age not to drink so much as a glass of wine (the effects of which can be, many believe, significant and negative to a fetus) for 40 years.

What you CAN do is try to reduce the incidence of unintended pregnancies, for a whole host of reasons, one of which is FASD. I’ve heard arguments that this is no one’s business either, that a woman can get pregnant and consume as much alcohol as she wishes. Clearly, she may, and can, and, unfortunately, in some instances, will.

But I will gladly talk about unfair in this scenario.

 

 

 

GIRL IN PIECES, by Kathleen Glasgow: A Book Review

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GIRL IN PIECES is the debut novel of Kathleen Glasgow, University of Minnesota MFA graduate whose own 12-year residence in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul brings a familiarity of place to Twin Cities readers. For some, the familiarity may end there; for others, it may only begin. The book’s main character, 17-year-old Charlie (Charlotte) Davis, is a cutter: a practitioner of self-harm, the deliberate act (according to Glasgow in an end note to the book) “of cutting, burning, poking or otherwise marring your skin as a way to cope with emotional turmoil.”

One (of many) successes of this beautifully written story is how Glasgow makes Charlie’s self-injury comprehensible and, arguably, inevitable. By the time she’s 17, Charlie has been abandoned by both parents, many friends and even the institution (a self-injury rehab clinic) to which she has been sent. Her compulsions and addictions are never romanticized but neither are they unforeseeable, given Charlie’s history of homelessness, abuse and neglect. When Glasgow describes Charlie’s “tender box”–the box of supplies she keeps to cut and, paradoxically, to salve and bandage her wounds afterwards–the notion that any human being would be so wanting for comfort, however expensively gotten, is a real and heartbreaking epiphany. In fact, in Glasgow’s sensitive telling of a girl in many, many pieces, the reader may well ask, Why have we allowed this? much sooner than Why is she doing this?

The book is full of other well-drawn, if not always likable, characters. They include an older man (near 30) with whom Charlie enters an ill-advised, co-dependent relationship. Can co-dependence actually occur in a relationship with a minor, or is it simply abuse because of Charlie’s age? To what degree can Charlie fully participate–even love–in such a relationship? How and when do healing and forgiveness occur in each party, after so much damage is done? These questions present themselves as perfect opportunities for discussion, either within or between generations of readers.

A few older women characters are particularly engaging. An art teacher named Ariel has the perhaps unattractive job of saying and doing some things to Charlie we, ourselves, might like to say and do:

[Ariel] moves quickly, reaching around me to grab my wrists. She flips my arms so the raised lines are visible. Instinctively, I stiffen and try to pull my hands back, but she tightens her grip. Her fingertips are tough with callouses.

She makes a growling sound. “You girls today. You make me so fucking sad. The world hurts enough. Why fucking chase it down? 

And yet we learn that, like everyone, Ariel has demons of her own that propel her to a better understanding of Charlie (who, after cursing right back at Ariel in the above scene, gains Ariel’s respect for being “a girl with teeth.”) Another very sympathetically drawn adult female character is a young woman named Linus. She works with Charlie at a coffee shop and in one scene shows the younger girl such honest kindness it literally brought this reader to tears.

Written in short, first-person/present tense segments, the book moves along at a rapid pace and with more than sufficient suspense to keep the reader entirely engaged throughout. There is tragedy and loss aplenty but there is also hope. “How are you going to live this hard life, Charlotte?” is what Ariel ultimately asks, and Glasgow answers it with so many different examples of self-care—art, love, kindness—that I’d recommend this book to an audience far more comprehensive than its YA marketing suggests.

You can pre-order GIRL IN PIECES at kathleenglasgowbooks.com. It will be published by Delacorte Press (for which it is a lead title, already sold in nine countries) on August 30, so you have plenty of time to get it on your book club’s schedule for fall of 2016. I highly recommend it, not only for its finely written story but also as a jumping off point for discussion between and among mothers, grandmothers, daughters and sons.

 

Summer Writing Workshops: Investment or Indulgence?

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For the record, at this point this is an entirely hypothetical question. I may or I may not have applied to the above writing conferences (I have certainly considered all of them) for a workshop this summer, and in any case I’ve yet to find out if they’ll take me. In some ways, this is a better time, however, to consider the value of such a conference than when I do/do not get in. I’m just trying to figure out their value.

I’ve attended one, the Tin House Summer Writing Workshop, five summers ago. I was afraid to go (social anxiety, professional anxiety) and had no idea how my writing skills would compare to those of other attendees. There was an application process, but is Tin House really going to turn down paying customers? (They say they have 1,000 apps a year and an acceptance rate of 34%). It cost a lot of money (a couple thousand dollars, by the time you travel and pay tuition) and a lot of time (7-8 days). I chose to apply to Tin House because it was a little less money and a few days’ less time than the other two. And also because I really wanted to work with Ben Percy, whose workshop I applied for and got in to.

In spite of my misgivings, I went. I made a few good writing friends. I maintain active and mutually supportive contact–we’ve met at every AWP since, I think– with one woman, the amazing Karen Stefano, whose story collection, The Secret Games of Words, I reviewed here. I also got excellent writing advice from Ben, in both the workshop and an additional mentorship (for which I paid extra but also for which I was selected from a pile of manuscripts given Ben for his review). And the continued professional support and mentorship from Ben has been invaluable and, frankly, one of the biggest (and best) surprises of my writing life.

Now five years has passed and I’m writing mostly longer fiction and it’s hard to get feedback for longer projects. So I’ve thought about applying to another writing conference, maybe trying to find, as I did at Tin House, a writer (whose work fills in the holes of my own) to help me get a good start on a new novel ms.

There are, of course, alternative experiences. It seems AWP has a new mentoring program it might be worth looking into. They’ve got a very tight application window, but it’s on my calendar. I also live in Minneapolis, home of the Loft Literary Center, where mentorships and opportunities for manuscript review abound and where I think I might even be able to get help procuring a specific mentor. Here, I don’t have to spend a fortune and I can continue my magazine-writing work and I can eat with or without company, as I wish. Here, I don’t have to consider every night if I’m going to feel like an ass if I drink/don’t drink, dance/don’t dance, say the literarily correct thing or not.

Here I have a roommate I like. A lot. And he says sweet things, not unkind, rumor-fueling ugliness-es, about my (clearly lovely) snoring.

In what little I’ve read about one conference, the hierarchy of who eats with whom would send most middle-schoolers reeling. I’m old, folks. I didn’t need that before and I certainly don’t now.

Clearly what I DO need is some help. Have you gone to one of these conferences, and was it worth the time and money? If mentorship is the goal, what other suggestions do you have?

 

Ableism–Not Just Another “-ism” for me

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In the past few weeks I’ve had the remarkable opportunity to interview several people with physical disabilities (preferred over ‘disabled people’, as they are, of course, people first) for some magazine articles. I’ve learned a great deal, not only about the interviewees themselves, but about their attitudes toward disability and my attitudes toward disability, too. What’s more, the experience has helped me better  understand “-isms” in general, perhaps racism in particular, in ways which, if not particularly flattering to me, might help us all take the time to try to understand what it means to be “other.”

As I’ve written here before, my parents both had some physical disabilities. My father, who has passed, had polio as a teenager and persistent significant one-arm/opposite leg weakness (for the life of me I can’t remember which!) throughout his life. My mother had a stroke when she was nine, probably as a result of some kind of atrial-venous malformation in her brain (there weren’t any CAT scans at the time). She’s dealt with right-sided weakness and spasticity since.

In both cases, it’s hard NOT to be influenced, as a child growing up, by stories your mother tells you (entirely matter-of-factly; my parents were never interested in anyone’s opinion about their disabilities, never mind pity) about how, after her stroke, she couldn’t speak. Or your father’s story of how, in the middle of a polio epidemic, he grew so tired and weak one day on a walk home from work he simply collapsed. About how one of the first things he remembered when he got to rehab was being weighed on something akin to a meat scale, my dad said (he was too weak for anything but). My father, even as a teen, was very tall (well over 6′) and he thought he must have been “close to the door” (as he was fond of saying) when he heard his weight announced as something under 100 pounds.

So: you know what? I’m all in for a discussion of ableism–which, according to a Wikipedia definition, is “the term for the privileging of able-bodiedness resulting in discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities.” From another source, diversityinc.com, “the thought that people with disabilities are dependent and require the care and support of someone else is an example of ableism.”

In essence, ableism characterizes a person as defined by their disability, just as racism characterizes a person as defined by their race, just as sexism characterizes a person as defined by their gender.

Although I’m a woman, I’ve not been touched–much, anyway–by sexism in my life. And I’m white, so I don’t have personal experience with racism. But ableism’s a different story. There are my parents’ stories, of course. But I also worked for many years as a physical therapist in the areas of neurology and rehab. My patients included many fine and interesting people with both physical and cognitive disabilities.

So all of a sudden it occurs to me, when I’m writing these articles in the past weeks, that “person with a disability” taps a well no different than “person of color.” That when my teenaged interviewee with cerebral palsy says to me she’s fine with questions (about her wheelchair or ‘sticks,’ e.g.) most days but on other days is simply tired of answering repeated inquiries about her body and her mind, it’s a reality check for me. In the past I’ve been kind of affronted by a person of color who said ‘I’m not answering that question AGAIN.’ But put it in the form of ableism (vs racism), and I totally get it.

When I interviewed a middle-aged dancer with multiple disabilities it was tempting to list, among his achievements, sky-diving. He brushed me off–that’s not what he’s about, he said. And his recently-produced dance show is NOT about how is life is an example of what disabled people can do. HE’S JUST A PERSON, he explains to me. Just a person with a body that works, albeit diversely, who loves to dance. As my teenaged interviewee is just a person who’d like to have a normal conversation with peers, about a TV show, or after-school sports. That’s all.

Which has made me reconsider what odd frame of accomplishment/achievement/let’s-just call-it-what-it-is racism it is through which I may judge, however much I don’t mean to, people of color.

In the broadway show Avenue Q there’s a song, “We’re All A Little Bit Racist” and I think it’s useful to expand that to other -isms, as well. The point I’m trying to make is this: Try to find that place where YOU best understand “otherness.” (This is one reason I think it’s useful for people to travel the world, to places where they are clearly excluded by language, custom, etc. It makes you understand “otherness” like little else, if you’ve generally not been “other” in your life.) Imagine this even brief encounter with being on the outside and see if you can extrapolate it to people who experience discrimination based on things that are not essential to who they are.

I’m better at understanding racism, I think, because I’ve had a lifetime of trying to understand ableism. What makes you better at understanding “-isms”?