Writing Connections: Home Improvement and Writing Part 1

This wasn’t the year I intended to tackle my kitchen’s issues.[*] Travel was on my family’s agenda, and maybe some small home improvement projects—like giving our addition (and more importantly, my office) a long overdue refresh. Our unlovely kitchen, born in 1955 and afflicted with a bad 70s update, could continue waiting its turn for a potentially expensive redo while we pursued more affordable projects.[†] But this year, people…well, it’s not been a good one for plans. Once the pandemic hit, we had to pivot and adjust, then do it again. And this very need to reconsider and revise has a lot do with how my refrigerator’s malfunction led to both a partial kitchen upgrade and some observations about the writing process.

My kitchen (or, at least 3/4 of it). An unholy combination of the 1950s worn cabinetry, a 70s (bad) makeover (see floor), weird choices (brick/paneling), and colors that won’t coordinate. Also, the star of this story, the 1980s fridge.

Appliance Amok

Every story begins with a problem. Ours was a broken refrigerator, an elderly appliance that one day began keeping its contents at decidedly balmy temperatures for bacteria. After some investigation, we decided that it was beyond repair. Thanks to our “garage refrigerator”—a secondhand unit passed along to us by kind relatives in case we needed it—we had some time to find a new one, though we didn’t want to wait too long as this spare was also geriatric. Before the pandemic, we would have researched features and brands, purchased a replacement, and waited for it to be delivered within a week or so. Going from replacing a refrigerator to redoing half the kitchen, however, was something of a plot twist.

Prewriting

Writing, too, starts with a situation in need of resolution. Stemming from “what if” scenarios, intriguing character studies, tidbits of overheard conversations, and various other sources of inspiration teeming in the imagination, these musings coalesce into a story-shaped idea. In this nebulous stage, the story is malleable as its writer grapples with the its viability, characters, plot, and so forth. My own experience with a recent story[‡] required a character to arrive in a place where she used to live but hadn’t visited for some time. Over time, my plan to “get her there” changed from her having some sort of business meeting to GPS rerouting her around traffic. But these changes, driven by a desire to streamline the story and the character’s evolving backstory, were significant. Small details can change everything in the initial plan—such as the size of a refrigerator.

The Kitchen Conundrum

Over the years, my tiny 1950s kitchen only suffered mostly cosmetic (if unfortunate) changes.[§] Touted as an eat-in kitchen, it could just squeeze in a table for two.[**] However, that ill-used space became prime refrigerator real estate once we established that the deceased refrigerator’s alcove limited our options to smaller units—the kind people might panic buy as a spare unit for stocking up extra food for the pandemic. Many of of refrigerators this size (regardless of availability) boasted larger dimensions than our little alcove. We either needed to search more diligently, perhaps in person,[††] or we needed to buy something bigger—with better features—and move it across the room. We decided to abandon our original plan (and floor plan) and found a refrigerator that worked.

And it’s a good thing that we were up to the challenge of revising our plans, because that was just the beginning. But that’s a story for another time.


TL;DR: My refrigerator broke, leading us to change the kitchen layout and (ultimately) update half the room. There are parallels to writing. Go read the whole thing to see the connections.

Update: On 7 November 2020, I fixed the links for the references. Theoretically, they should work now.

NOTES:


[*]So. Many. Issues.

[†]Since we took residence in 2006, we tackled several large projects in our fixer upper, and it seemed like a good time to tackle something smaller. Apparently, we were wrong.

[‡]Currently, I’m working on short stories for this year’s NaNoWriMo.

[§]Arguably the only true improvement to the kitchen was swapping a cabinet for a dishwasher, which we replaced some time ago.

[**]It was mostly wasted space, eventually occupied by waste bins.

[††] Hahaha, no. Although we were in a less restricted phase, we weren’t that keen on going out.

Reading Women in Translation 2020: Finding Connection

More seriously, though, reading women in translation is yet another way in which we can find our common humanity and build our empathy for each other. I think this is the year we can truly use that connection.

Over the last few years, I made a point of including books by women in translation—that is, once I discovered this gap in my reading habits. As I discussed earlier, it’s a tremendous loss to be unaware of these amazing women writing excellent books—a compounded loss, when we consider how many women’s books don’t get translated in the first place. WITMonth[*] goes some ways towards changing that trend as each year passes, which is why I like to remind folks about this event. After all, it’s always a great idea to support women writers. Speaking personally, reading these works has enriched my life, and I’m glad that these books and writers are getting their deserved attention.

WITmonth 2020

This year, however, I found myself looking forward to WITMonth a bit more than I previously did.[†] On Twitter, I enjoyed conversations where people shared their recommendations for books they recently read or favorites they felt everyone should read. There was the joy of discovering people who liked books that I liked as well as the thrill that someone was going to read a book I suggested. It was a stimulating experience that made me ransack my bookshelves and download a few new books.[‡] Perhaps this represents my passion for books or the pleasure of an uncomplicated conversation in a tumultuous year, but I think there’s more to it that I may have overlooked at a different time.

Connection and Community

WITMonth is a connector, both through books and social media. I chatted with folks from England, Australia, and distant parts of my own country about books and why they or I must read them. The act of reading these books, too, forges connections. When I picked up books written by writers from distant times and places, people who speak and live differently than I do, I travel through these experiences—something for which I’m grateful as my opportunities to travel and meet people are limited at present. More seriously, though, reading women in translation is yet another way in which we can find our common humanity and build our empathy for each other. I think this is the year we can truly use that connection.[§]

WITMonth both celebrates women writers we might otherwise miss without an annual event to bring these books more attention and creates community. And it’s not limited to just one month: we can read these books and continue discussing them online throughout the year.

RESOURCES

If you’re looking for great titles to add to your reading list, check out Meytal Radzinki’s web site. As the founder of #WITmonth, her suggestions span the globe.

NOTES:


[*] Held in August each year since being founded by Meytal Radzinki in 2014, Women in Translation month (#WITmonth) celebrates books by women translated into English.

[†] Though, I confess I read less than I hoped to do. Covid-19’s effect on my reading is to allow time to read in great gulps or not at all. Also, I undertook reading The Tale of Genji, and it is massive.

[‡] My local library had The Perfect Nanny (in England, Lullaby) by Leïla Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor), a haunting, tragic novel exploring class, race, and parenting. (Warning for violence against children/death and suicide.)

[§] More on this point in an upcoming post, as 2020, also has been a time of unrest and protest for social justice.

Uplifting Reading for the Quarantine: the Inspiration in Michelle Obama’s Becoming

“For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others.”

When I began writing this post about the books I read over the last few months, I focused on a few I wanted to highlight for Black History[*] and Women’s History Months. What I wrote, however, seemed to strike the wrong note as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. I still will assert that it’s always a great time to read more books written by black and/or women writers, but I’m going to put the cheekier tone on hold. For now. Instead, I’m focusing on reviewing a book that I feel provides inspiration for these troubling times: Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming.

At the end of Becoming, Michelle challenges us to reconsider how we look at our circumstances. Within a week, the area where I live in Pennsylvania went from practicing social distancing to receiving stay-at-home orders.[†] Right now, it’s easy to view these restrictions as confining, but it’s also easy to reframe this effort as doing our part in limiting this disease’s spread. We might not be able to control our circumstances, but we can choose how we consider such situations. Michelle Obama’s story has many lessons, but the power of shaping your own narrative is an important one.

(TLDR: For those of you needing a quarantine read that keeps your hope afloat, check out my review of Becoming and see if it appeals to you. Stay safe, everyone.)


Becoming

Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, gives its readers an insider’s view of the First Lady’s life up to and through Barack Obama’s historic presidency. Both touching and humorous, she shares her unique perspective on career, politics, and family. Michelle’s achievements, as is often the case for first African Americans to hold a position,[‡] differ from her First Lady predecessors in many respects. But her blue-collar upbringing on Chicago’s southside (an area known for “white flight”) shaped her life profoundly, sparking both her ambition and willingness to help others. She recognizes that for her to achieve success as a student, corporate lawyer, nonprofit organizer, First Lady, mother, and wife, others first had to invest in her success. Poignantly, Michelle reflects on how various relatives abandoned their dreams to survive and how her parents sacrificed their own aspirations (eg, home ownership) to help their secure their children’s future. Both Michelle and her brother, Craig Robinson, would go onto attend Ivy League schools and embark on professional careers.

Career, Love, and Politics

During Michelle’s early career as a corporate lawyer, she met Barack Obama. This section of the book, often laced with fond spousal exasperation, shines as these opposites fall in love, find a balance that works for them, and support each other through familial losses, infertility, family life, and what now seems to be Barack’s inevitable political ascent. Aware that Barack’s ambitions could eclipse her own, Michelle credits him for helping her “swerve” from the more sensible if unfulfilling law practice into nonprofit work despite the pay cut and their student loans.

As their lives became fuller with the arrival of their daughters and Barack’s burgeoning political career, the book shifts into the more familiar history of that ascent. Michelle, wary of politics and the scrutiny it would bring their young family, was reluctant to become a politician’s wife. Despite her concerns she supported Barack’s decision to run for various political offices and, ultimately, his presidential candidacy because she believed “he was exactly the kind of smart, decent president I would chose for this country”.

White House Days

When it comes to her years in the White House, Michelle focuses on the development of her outreach programs (eg, the Let’s Move) as First Lady. She discusses the pain and discomfort associated negative and often racist publicity targeted at herself and her family as well as how she learned to put it aside. In addition to revealing her behind-the-scenes planning and her reactions to notable events as they unfolded, she also shares what it’s like living in the White House. As the presidency approaches its end, fun tidbits abound (including her early preview of a musical that would one day become Hamilton). But there’s also a strong sense, however, that those final days were a blur between campaigning for Hillary Clinton and preparing for the Trump presidency. Arguably, Becoming might be part of the process of unpacking these moments.

Final Reflections

Like many memoirs, Michelle Obama’s closes with her reflecting on what she has learned thus far. Looking back on her childhood, she realized it could be characterized however she wished, either by focusing on the negatives and positives. Perhaps for this reason she wants to both share her story and listen to those of others. As she best stated it, “For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others. And here is what I have to say, finally: Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us.” She concludes this account at the point of her new beginning, a new chapter where she will continue becoming herself.

NOTES:


[*] In the United States.

[†] Meaning I must stay home unless I qualify as an essential worker (eg, healthcare, grocery, government, etc.) or I need to be out (eg, grocery shopping, need medical attention).

[‡] Several reviews refer to her “improbable” ascent to First Lady, given that she grew up in blue-collar, African American community. However, her family as, Barack Obama observed, was more like a black version of Leave It to Beaver.

The 2019 Reading Review

My Reading Year in Review

It’s safe to say that most book lovers hope to read more books in the new year, whether they have a specific goal in mind or long for more time to engage in this favored pastime. But reading isn’t about quantity, as readers who suffer book hangovers can attest. Certain books draw us in, make us wish to live longer within their pages. Some books entertain, while others make our hearts hurt. Some dazzle us with the beauty, the lyricism of their phrasing, while others stun us with their twists.

Whatever the case may be, reading is a powerful act, one that lets us live other lives, builds our empathy, and deepens our understanding. And while reading is often perceived as solitary, we do read books aloud or in parallel (as I did with my kiddo this year[†]), allowing this experience to become a communal one. So, yes, readers want to read more each year but not because they wish to beat some goal. It’s to experience more.

For what it’s worth, I did exceed my reading goals this year,[‡] I also read most (thought not all) of the books I planned to read. I even completed the 2019 Reading Women Challenge (more on that later!). But the true triumph was that I read stories that enriched my world, making me glad I spent time in immersed in someone else’s words. Below, I’ve listed a few books that I found particularly memorable as well as a few books I hope to read in 2020. Regardless of how many books we read, I hope this year is filled with meaningful books for all.

2019 Reading Recommendations

Older Women with Character

If eccentric but difficult elderly women amuse you, then consider reading both An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten (trans. Marlaine Dalargy) and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman (trans. Henning Koch). Unwilling to be sweet, these women will make you see older women less as “old dears” and more as the complicated human beings they are. An honorable mention in this category is Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori). While protagonist Keiko is younger woman than the women in the aforementioned novels, she, very much like them, chooses to follow her own nontraditional path–much to the dismay of her family and friends.

The Twist of the Tale

In Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson, only Claudia seems disturbed by her best friend’s disappearance.

The book I read this year with the best twist was Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson. In this wrenching story of a young woman trying to determine why her best friend disappeared, the reader might work up a few good guesses as to what happened to Monday. Yet, though there were a few odd moments in the story, I don’t think much alerted me to its twist. Second place belongs to The Wife Between Us, a thriller by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen. This book advertised its twist in a “you’ll never see it coming way!”, which led me scrutinize the text quite closely for clues. And, sure enough, I picked up on a few details that partially (but not completely) revealed the twist. Nonetheless, I think the authors still surprised me in many places and I was on edge for much of the novel. As a minor aside, there was one final twist that felt a bit unnecessary. In my opinion, it gilded the lily but by no means ruined the book or its overall impact.

Brilliant Nonfiction

Science Asides: Black Faces, White Spaces—Structural Racism & Environmental Inequity. Review text by Rita E. Gould.
Black Faces, White Spaces, which I reviewed early this year, discusses how systemic racism bars African Americans from enjoying the Great Outdoors and, more importantly, the people working to change this.

This year, I read several works of nonfiction that opened my eyes to the past, often exposing past or ongoing social ills (Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans with the Great Outdoors by Carolyn Finney, Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore, Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech by Sara Wachter-Boettcher). Two other notable reads focused on a devastating library fire (The Library Book by Susan Orlean) and a rare books thief (The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett), with both sharing a thread of loss and longing. Since some of these books will feature in upcoming reviews (or already were reviewed), I won’t go into detail here. But keep these in mind if you’re interested in social justice or some fascinating tales focused on the book world.

2020 Reading List
That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina*
A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecroft *
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien *
Behind the Mask: the Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott by Louisa May Alcott
A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (trans. Royall Tyler)  
*I attempted these last year but was interrupted, necessitating a fresh start.

I’m looking forward to (hopefully!) reading these books and more! Happy new year and happy reading to you!

NOTES


[†] Indeed, my reading list received a hefty boost from reading Rick Riordan’s books about Percy Jackson and the Olympians.

[‡] I aimed to read 48 books and read 64.

Writing Inspiration: a NaNoWriMo Prompt

Meeting another Rita, let alone another bookish one, is a rare pleasure for me.

My friends and I went to the Baltimore Book Festival last Sunday (November 3rd). While there, I met another Rita. Meeting another Rita, let alone another bookish one, is a rare pleasure for me. As is often the case, though, the other Rita happened to be older than me by several years. One of my friends joked that it was future me (I apparently shrunk several inches). As we walked to a restaurant later in the afternoon, we happened to be discussing writing prompts, which led my suggestion we should all write about how we meet our future selves. I’ve decided to use this prompt for the NaNoWriMo story I’m composing today. In the spirit of sharing with the writing community and inspiring folks to get words on the page, here’s the full (expanded) prompt.

TL;DR: I met another Rita, which inspired the “write about meeting your future self” prompt.

Prompt

How does current day you meet your future self? What have they (you) been doing before they traveled back in time? Will your older self reveal that they’re you? Whether or not they identify, what words of wisdom do they share? Finally, do they live out their life in the past or do they, having completed some arbitrary goal, return to their lives?

What I Wrote for Summer Vacation

When it comes to writing, word count isn’t everything.

Some weeks ago, I felt a sense of dismay growing as I finalized my family’s remaining summer plans and back-to-school preparations.[*] Amid juggling tasks, I began worrying about whether I had written enough this summer—and I was certain I “ought” to have written more. Fortunately for my peace of mind, I made a few realizations that made me more comfortable with my summer word count.

“Not Writing” Time

The first discovery that helped me worry less about word count stemmed from learning that some writers set time aside when they will not be writing. Admittedly, this information seems to be more aligned with common sense than profundity. After all, we can’t always write. But the critical distinction here is one of choice, the significant difference between “can’t” and “won’t”. I can’t write while I drive, because it’s dangerous (and probably illegal),[†] but I “won’t” write while on vacations when I need to relax. If I’m being honest, I don’t accomplish much writing when I’m mentally drained. It’s better to give myself permission to “not write” and allow myself the space to recharge my creativity than to spend that time feeling like I failed to write.

From Slump to Inspiration

The second realization occurred when I re-read my post about summer writing from last year. At the time, I thought that my writing schedule needed a tune up. But while that may (still) be the case, I needed to reconsider whether it was just a summertime slump in my motivation or if there were more factors involved. While my word counts tend to stagnate while I’m at the shore, it’s also important to consider how such distractions benefit my writing. Our experiences inform our writing. It’s difficult to dredge up inspiration from places we haven’t seen or things we’ve not done. And my imagination needs the occasional bit of kindling. This summer, I spent some time reading while poolside, a necessary fuel for writing. I also went to new places, some which already wish to be painted into the background of my next story.

Plans in Motion

Finally, though, there was one last observation that reassured me that my summer writing was successful and that came when I checked my writing goals. As part of my ongoing project to build better writing habits, I committed to writing for July’s Camp NaNoWriMo. And although I wrote fewer words than I thought I would, I’m now several hundred words into my short story and I know how it begins and end. But, most importantly, I made a plan to write and did so—and that’s progress by any measure.


NOTES:

[*]This year, all our family travel overlapped some other event, the most stressful being the first week of school. I doubt my child missed much, but I spent several hours confirming that would be the case.

[†]Technically, I suppose driving and writing could be done at the same time, but in the interest of public safety (and less time spent revising), I don’t recommend it.

The Other Side of the Circulation Desk

For me, volunteering at my child’s school library felt like coming full circle.

When my child returned to elementary school this past year, so did I.

Quite literally.

However, I stopped just short of joining the third grade with him and instead popped into the library, ready to begin my stint as a volunteer there.

Full Circle

For me, volunteering at my child’s school library felt like coming full circle. My mother brought me along when she volunteered at the parochial school where my older siblings attended.[*] Already a reader, I loved the library, its scent of books, the vast shelves of stories.[†] I remember the school librarian being a kind woman who drew the difficult number eights my hands couldn’t yet manage. Becoming a librarian’s assistant in turn seemed like an ideal way to pay forward the generosity I received at the many libraries I visited in my youth.

Tricky Customers

It also proved to be an eye-opening experience. I knew beforehand that my duties would include shelving, locating, and checking out books, not to mention helping the younger students select what they wanted to read. But I forgot about the crushing indecision children suffer when given so many choices, regardless of whether they wanted to read more books than allotted[‡] or whether they didn’t know what they wanted to read at all. Keeping in mind popular choices for their age levels, their specific reading levels, and age-appropriate material while trying to guess their interests made me long for telepathy. But every child we helped left with a book.

There’s More to Libraries than Books

Makerspace also surprised me. Alternating with “book week”, makerspace ranges from puzzle solving with plastic cups to stop-motion animation with leaves. My son previously mentioned some projects he worked on, but his limited explanation failed to convey their interdisciplinary nature or the labor behind their success. Even at the elementary school level, librarians’ responsibilities extend far beyond their being benevolent bestowers of books (see “Read More”).[§] But, it paid off. While I handed out supplies in the background so that the librarian could instruct the students, the kids learned how to do an impressive array of activities, like program robots wearing costumes the kids created. I often left amazed (if tired) at what the kids could do with some direction and patience. Well, a lot of patience and glue. And wouldn’t you know, some kids were inspired to read more about the projects they worked on the previous week.

After my year at the library, I realized I had even more reasons to appreciate my son’s librarians as well as the ones who shaped my own childhood. And I’m looking forward to discovering more next year.

READ MORE

Curious about what librarians do besides hoarding books? Check out these articles to learn more:

What Librarians Really Do All Day at Work by Romeo Rosales

What Exactly Does a Librarian Do? Everything by Kristin Arnett

5 Things That People Don’t Realize their Librarians Do by Rebecca Tischler

NOTES:


[*]And where I went to school…a few years later.

[†]From my then tiny perspective. Like most things that loomed larger than life in my memory, they seem shrunk now that I’m grown.

[‡]These kids are my people. When I take my child to the public library, he’s allowed to take out as many books as he can carry.

[§]For example, I learned about the schwa when school librarian discussed how to use the dictionary, instead of in a Reading or English class.

Black Faces, White Faces: Structural Racism and the Outdoors


Science Asides: Black Faces, White Spaces—Structural Racism & Environmental Inequity. Review text by Rita E. Gould.

In Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, cultural geographer Dr. Carolyn Finney painstakingly investigates why African Americans are underrepresented when it comes to enjoying “the Great Outdoors” and environmentalism. Finney draws on a blend of scholarly works, close study of popular media,[*] field research, and personal experiences[†] to provide a thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of how the natural world has different, racialized contexts for black people and white people. Aimed at both experts and “just folks”, this scholarly book dispels the assumption of African Americans disinterest and reveals how underlying structural racism bears the responsibility for this disparity.

Dr. Finney, conscious to emphasize the diversity of African American culture, background, and experiences,[‡] nonetheless discusses several pervasive barriers to black people’s meaningful engagement with nature, among them (I’ll discuss three briefly) the painful legacies of slavery and segregation that continue to negatively shape attitudes toward natures. Far from seeing forests as a source of spiritual connection as white people might, African Americans may instead view such places as sites of violence (eg, lynching). When early white conservationists (several of whom promoted eugenics ideology) campaigned to protect natural places, they also deliberately barred non-white persons from these places. Unsurprisingly, this exclusion creates the impression that nature is for white people, causing many African Americans to avoid unwelcoming areas that may prove dangerous for them. Representation, too, plays an important role. Finney demonstrates that there is a dearth of black faces in media representation, whether it is an advertisement featuring only white people performing outdoor activities or a magazine that fails to include African American activists and leaders in a green issue. These instances are examples of missed opportunities to inspire black people to use the National Parks or join green organizations—something which also preserves the status quo. And it cannot be emphasized enough that the lack of diversity in these organizations contributes to instances where black individuals and communities are forgotten or ignored on environmental issues.

While much of Black Faces, White Spaces examines these barriers and many others, it is not a grim treatise but a hopeful one. Finney’s work looks to understand such barriers so that they can be effectively dismantled. In addition, she often highlights African Americans who are currently working on creating a more inclusive experience in natural areas (eg, when the National Park Systems included slave narratives in plantation tours) or forming their own environmental action groups to ensure issues important to black communities get the representation they deserve. Black Spaces, White Faces significantly contributes to the ongoing conversation about making the Great Outdoors and the environmental movement more equitable.

Further Reading

Part of what we can do to change our perception about the issues that Dr. Finney outlines is to educate ourselves. In this spirit, I am providing a short list of articles (by no means complete or exhaustive) that highlight the black (mostly, African American) environmentalists making a difference.

8 Black Environmentalists You Need To Know by Alice Kurima Newberry

6 Black Environmental Activists Who Changed History by Lara Brenner

5 Black Environmentalists Worth Celebrating On Earth Day by Jessica Dickerson


NOTES:

[*]In the New Book Networks: African American studies podcast, Finney explains that she chose to include these non-academic sources, because African Americans often are excluded and underrepresented in scholarly works. Popular media, however, often conveys messages about dominant cultural narratives as well as their underlying intentions. Since popular media can be accessed by all people, Finney also could address a wider audience than just her fellow academics.

[†]Finney includes her own family’s experiences, as they served as the caretakers of an estate in upstate New York for 50 years. When this estate (where they no longer lived) was donated for preservation, the white owners—not the Finney family—were praised for their stewardship.

[‡]Finney takes great care in being clear that she does not speak for all African Americans or for other non-white groups who may share similar experiences of exclusion from natural areas and the environmental discourse.

Greetings from Camp NaNoWriMo

Meet NaNoWriMo’s low-key Spring and Summer virtual writing retreats.

Last year (as you may already know), I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo. Of course, I knew a fair bit about the month-long event in which one attempts to write a novel (or, at least 50,000 words towards one) in November. But there were several things I didn’t know beforehand,[*] among them that the NaNoWriMo team also hosted additional events in April and July[†] called Camp NaNoWriMo. Since my November was packed long before I agreed this ambitious writing goal, I skipped clicking onto that link. And by the time NaNoWriMo finished, I exhaustedly signed off my account and decided I’d investigate it later.

Much later, as it happened.

Somewhere around early to mid-March, I started receiving a few gentle emails about upcoming April session. Soon after, my spouse mentioned it. Taking the hint at last, I decided to look into Camp NaNoWriMo. Similar to NaNoWriMo, it features word sprints, write-ins, daily inspirations, word prompts, and more. Unlike its well-known counterpart, participants have the option to be sorted into cabins (thus creating a small writing community) and, more importantly, set their own writing goals. And that can be word counts, chapters, consecutive writing days, or revision/editing. Or, in my case, 3500 new words for my novel. Billed as “an idyllic writers retreat smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life”, Camp NaNoWriMo aims to help writers complete smaller, focused writing tasks.

While NaNoWriMo excels at getting writers working on their novels, the quick pace leaves little room for refinement. During Camp NaNoWriMo thus far, I’ve had time to tweak what I’ve already written, and a stronger narrative is slowly emerging as I add new material. While my progress is slower, my novel reads better—making Camp NaNoWriMo an ideal follow-up to its November predecessor. For those who declined writing for NaNoWriMo because of its intense deadline but wished they could participate in its associated activities, Camp NaNoWriMo provides a good blend of self-determined writing, support, and challenges to motivate writers through small projects that just might inspire them to give the main event a whirl. Or to keep on camping!

TLDR:[‡] Camp NaNoWriMo provides the best of NaNoWriMo’s events (writing sprints/marathons, prompts, and daily inspirations) with the added bonuses of allowing participants to set their own writing goals and, should they so desire, connect with fellow writers.

NOTES:


[*]Namely, how I would manage writing roughly 1666 words. (Hint, it’s sleep deprivation at the month’s end!)

[†]Which means if you’re running too late for April, you can instead plan for July. And I’m seriously thinking about signing up then, too.

[‡]I rolled out a new feature in my last post, which appears here again. TL;DR (better known as “too long; didn’t read) is a quick summary guide that will feature in most-to-all of my upcoming posts for people who want to get right to point.)

Review of The Backstreets of Purgatory: Delusion and Dark Humor in Glasgow

…the only way to honour her [Finn’s Italian paternal grandmother] as she deserved to be honoured, was to completely piss off his social-climbing mother, subvert his turgid middle-class upbringing — and commit entirely to the role of misunderstood artist. Which he’d done with fervor until the pretence and reality had become inseparable.

The fact was his tutor didn’t know one end of the paintbrush from another. He didn’t need permission from an uptight spinster to paint what he wanted to paint….The picture was clear….He should be out there with the people…not hanging around here, being misunderstood and dragged down by these pretentious losers.

from The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor

From the outset, The Backstreets of Purgatory promises its readers “art, insanity, and Irn-Bru”. The Glasgow-based novel, which follows the tribulations of its protagonist (Finn Garvie) and those of his overlapping social circles, initially might come across as the latest entry in the familiar tale of the tortured artist. However, it’s soon apparent that author Helen Taylor intends to take this story in a rather (darkly humorous) different direction. Early on, Taylor presents the ironic situation in which Finn, having devoted a considerable portion of his life to playing the “misunderstood artist”, decides to decamp from his art school before earning his coveted Master’s degree on grounds that he was “being misunderstood”.* And given that Finn is funded (perhaps reluctantly) by his middle-class parents, he isn’t exactly the sort one pictures when imagining an impoverished but gifted artist descending into madness. But that’s rather the point here. The relationship between suffering and great art is at best a murky one, and it’s clear that The Backstreets of Purgatory intends to challenge what readers “know” about art and mental health.

As a character-driven novel, The Backstreets of Purgtory delivers with its lovingly drawn if all-too human ensemble. Taylor’s empathetic narration (split among four narrators) provides a multifaceted portraiture of the core characters that is nonetheless a very much warts-and-all approach (not unlike Carvaggio’s style of realistic painting). As a result, we might see a character valorized in one chapter (eg, Finn rescues an inebriated Maurice from sleeping rough) but later witness their more ignominious side (in Lizzi’s case, when she forgets her professional ethics in a misguided effort to protect Finn). The three other narrators (intriguingly, all female) also provide alternative (and arguably, corrective) perspectives to Finn’s narrative—and sometimes, to each other’s viewpoints. Since their relationships with Finn range from intimate to indirect connection, we get a sense of how Finn affects not only him, but people close to him but also their larger community, a refreshing change from the tendency to observe mental illness as though it occurs within a vacuum.

For Finn, the appearance of Purgatory parolee, Carvaggio (his artistic hero and alleged ancestor) seems to be an answer to his artistic conundrum. Coupled with the inspiration provided by Kassia (an au pair from Poland), Finn is hopeful that he’ll finally paint something meaningful. However, Carvaggio’s arrival instead marks a period of crisis for Finn and company, attributable to misleading appearances, hasty assumptions, miscommunication, and, often, Finn himself. As Finn and his friendships deteriorate, Finn also finds that both muse and mentor are less helpful than hoped, with Carvaggio living up to his hellraiser reputation. Nonetheless, the shocking conclusion, complete with its untidy (though very realistic) resolution, will leave readers unsettled as they ponder the underlying issues that contribute to troubled persons’ faltering sanity or sobriety long after they finish reading this novel.

Summary (TL;DR): The Backstreets of Purgatory is both a profane and darkly humorous novel that examines several weighty issues, ranging from mental illness, substance abuse, and gender inequality.§ An immersive read with well-drawn characters that builds to a devastating finale, the reader will feel this book’s impact long after they finish it.

NOTES:


*Arguably, Finn hasn’t been misunderstood but understood all too well. Finn’s reaction—one of outright rejection of criticism from a more learned woman coupled with expecting to be top of his class—is a neat mixture of fragile ego, entitlement, and underlying misogyny suggestive of toxic masculinity.

While this novel includes discussion of a famous artist and his body of work, it’s not necessary to be well versed in Carvaggio’s oeuvre, as the novel provides sufficient background information. For those interested in his biography or the artworks whose names are used as chapter titles in The Backstreets of Purgatory, I recommended checking here.

Described in visceral detail that brings the city to life, Glasgow (particularly its West End) seems to function much like a village in that everyone either knows each other or knows a friend of a friend, giving it an atmosphere that ranges from close-knit to claustrophobic. It’s partly due to this cozy sense of community that Taylor succeeds in making it plausible that many of the major characters, regardless of their divergent backgrounds, meet and interact.

§Throughout the novel, several incidents demonstrate how women (regardless of class, race, or finances) receive unequal treatment ranging catcalling (street harassment) to increased domestic workload. For example, Dr. Esme Blythe’s relative security (in terms of finance and family) does not prevent her from being among the many working women who complete the majority of household and child-rearing tasks while her spouse idles on his phone (a fact made more heinous since he’s content to let her do the washing up despite her severe eczema).