reviewed by Abigail Fellin
“This affliction—hope—is so cruel and stubborn. I believe it will kill me.”
Sold by Patricia McCormick follows the story of young Lakshmi, a thirteen-year-old girl from Nepal. Growing up in poverty with an alcoholic stepfather who gambles away all the family’s belongings, her only dream is to live in a house with a tin roof. So, when her step-father says she must go to the city and work as a maid to make money, she is excited at the idea of making her Ama (mother) proud.
Unfortunately, she is not going to the city to be a maid and it isn’t until she is trapped in the Happiness House that she realizes she was sold to a brothel.
“…a zipper baring its teeth… the wincing of the mattress... but if you are lucky, or if you work hard at it, you hear nothing.”
Sold is not an easy book to read. While the chapter are all short and the novel is written in the format of poetry with white space to help readers digest information, the content of the book is heart wrenching. With rape scenes, beatings, and horrible realities thousands of young girls face, this book is not meant for all audiences and is better suited for mature readers.
How Laksmi stays alive and keeps hope while attempting to pay off her debt to Mamtaz is inspiring. McCormick includes an afterword talking about the reality of the book for some women who live in a society where girls are equivalent to goats, “good as long as she gives you milk and butter. But not worth crying over when it’s time to make a stew.”
Inspiring, poetic, and devastating, Sold is the type of book that stays with you long after you put it down, leaving you to wonder what you would be willing to go through for your freedom.
Reviewed by Abigail Fellin
the princess saves herself in this one by Amanda Lovelace is a collection of poetry that seems to embody the new contemporary poetry flooding social media.This collection is separated into four sections: the princess, the damsel, the queen, you. Each section walks through a different idea on family, relationships, grieving, and healing.
The idea of this collection speaks to me. I love the idea of twisting classic fairy tales into something more feminist where there is no need for a knight in shining armor to save the girl who can’t defend herself. However, while pieces of this collection were great, overall it fell short for me.
Lovelace does a few great things with this book. She puts a trigger warning at the beginning to warn readers of sensitive topics her poems touch on. Since some of the subject touches on harder topics—such as self harm, abuse, sexual assault, and suicide—this is a great idea. While some of the items on the list may not be needed, the overall sentiment is considerate.
Lovelace also plays with formatting. Some of her poetry resembles Facebook status updates and dictionary definitions, while others play with white spaces to achieve different effects. Personally, this is something I love seeing poets do. One of the reasons poetry is so great is the ability to play with format and spacing on a page to add more depth and dimension to poems.
Some of the poems are fabulously written, with exquisite details, and neat connections to other poems. However, a majority of the collection felt less like poetry and more like someone’s diary that was cut up, rearranged, and pasted together with line breaks. While this can be done really well with the right subject matter and powerful word usage, the princess saves herself in this one did not meet that mark. It felt too personal with not enough details to allow me to connect to the characters (typically the speaker). Also, the last section felt like collection of life advice that someone might print out and hang up on a motivational board, not a poem with a message.
To me, this collection wasn’t the type of poetry I was looking for. It left me craving more stories, less diary entries, more depth that I have to decipher, and less stanzas that walk readers through the poem’s messages. Lovelace’s style just didn’t do it for me. However, poetry has no set definition. People dismissed Emily Dickinson’s style because it didn’t tickle their poetry fancy. However, it’s still poetry, and different people like different things. I would recommend to give the princess saves herself in this one a chance whether you are a long time lover of poetry or have never read a book of poetry in your life. Even if the style doesn’t fit in with your preference on poetry, it still contains some great messages and it might make you reconsider what you think you know about poetr
Reviewed by Gwen Hart
Add poetry reading and writing to your summer easily with Tania Runyan's How to Write a Poem (T.S. Poetry Press). Runyan's accessible guide uses the stanzas from Billy Collin's popular poem "Introduction to Poetry" as a framework for introducing the key components of poetry: imagery, sound, line breaks, discovery, mystery, and revision. This is a fresh, fun approach for aspiring poets.
As the title suggests, this book focuses on writing poetry--with good examples from a variety of poets along the way. You may find yourself googling a few of these names to read more of their work--a great way to discover a new favorite poet!
Runyan's chapters are bite-sized (around seven pages each), perfect for busy people who want to add a little poetry to their lives. Each chapter contains a "Try It Out" exercise that allows you to apply what you've learned in the chapter to concrete examples (e.g., turning flat travel brochure language--an extravaganza of natural wonders!--into engaging imagery). Runyan ends each chapter with a "Your Turn" poetry prompt to inspire you to create your own poems.
In one of the most effective aspects of the book, Runyan takes readers through multiple drafts of her poem "Loch Ness Sculpture, Wyoming." Watching Runyan's poem evolve across the chapters shows how important each element of poetry is to a final draft.
The book concludes with a mini anthology of twenty-five poems, each with an accompanying prompt. The poems are divided into categories that compliment the earlier chapters. The anthology also illustrates by example how you can take a poem you love and turn it into a prompt to inspire your own poem.
If there is a downside to this book, it is that it cannot cover some of the more intricate aspects of poetry--but that is not its purpose. Runyan provides a solid foundation here that poets can build on, a jumping-off point perfect for the summer poetry explorer.
Review by Abigail Fellin
Issues 14 year olds face: social clichés at school, homework assignments and grades, sports, trying to figure out where they belong in the world.
Issues 14 year old Junior has to face: social clichés at school, racism, the belief he will never do anything, being susceptible to seizures, poverty, a stutter, having the reservation turn its back on him, alcoholism, and trying to figure out where he belongs in the world.
Alexie approaches the typical coming-of-age story line with a unique perspective: a poor Native American who lives in an alcoholic community. I’m not sure how many YA books I have come across that are from the perspective of a young boy growing up on a reservation. While this book has been criticized for reinforcing stereotypes, it still offers one view of this experience.
Based on his own life events, Sherman Alexie tackles tough topics in his novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Junior has grown up on the Spokane Indian Reservation where poverty and alcoholism are norms. Not wanting to fall into the same fate his parents have, Junior decides to transfer to the all-white school, Reardan, 22 miles away. Here he is faced with racism in a school where the only other Native American is the school mascot.
While the novel has been banned in some school districts for mentions of masturbation and boners, there is still much to be learned from it. Junior allows adolescents and adults alike see a new outlook on life and forces readers to confront their own prejudices or lack of knowledge on reservation life. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has relatable struggles, powerful messages, and arguably a good role model for readers to look up to. While some of these messages and references to political and social injustices may be lost on younger audiences (10-12 years old), I find the novel appropriate for middle school readers.
Sherman Alexie’s novel can be found almost anywhere books are sold.
Review by Abigail Fellin
“Do you know that stat? It’s something like black people are six times as likely to have no weapons on them when they’re killed by cops.”
Some books punch you in the stomach with the power of their lines. This is one of those books. Focused on the story of a young, black male named Rashad who was beaten by police outside a local convenience store, All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely tackles the relevant and pressing issue of racial inequalities and police brutality in the United States.
Rashad is buying a bag of chips at a local convenience store after finishing up with ROTC when a lady trips over him and he is accused of stealing. The police officer in the store uses what some would consider unnecessary force to arrest him, resulting in a hospital stay. Quinn is standing outside and watched it all happen. The rest of the novel takes place over the next week as both Rashad and Quinn struggle to understand what happened, and their place in the issue.
Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely work well together to show two different perspectives of the American experience. By raising challenging questions on issues of race and responsibility, these authors force readers to think deeply about their identity and what they consider to be the All-American experience.
With controversial topics being the center of this book, it can be a challenging read. Forcing some readers to come face to face with their own prejudices, forcing others to relive tragic moments, and bringing up painful emotions for almost everyone, this book holds the potential to change lives.
by Ranelle Irwin
I’d always heard about The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. It’s been on numerous banned book lists and has caused parents to question the moral integrity of high school English programs all over the United States. Naturally, this only heightened my desire to read it over winter break.
Salinger creates an engaging conversational tone by adapting his writing style to follow patterns of speech—from the way we enunciate certain syllables to the way that conversations are often cyclical and repetitive rather than logical and straightforward.
Holden and Mr. Antolini, a former teacher, talk at the end of the book about Holden’s Oral Expressions class. Richard Kinsella, a boy who didn’t always stick to the point, led the schoolboys to shout, “Digression!” every time Richard veered off-topic.
Holden says, “I mean I guess he should’ve picked his uncle as a subject, instead of the farm, if that interested him most. But what I mean is, lots of the time you don’t know what interests you most till you start talking about something that doesn’t interest you most . . . What I think is, you’re supposed to leave somebody alone if he’s at least being interesting and he’s getting all excited about something.”
In some ways, the book models this idea—it doesn’t always stay on topic and it brings up old topics, copying them almost verbatim. Some readers may find this off-putting since it deviates from the storytelling techniques in a typical novel, but in a sense, it heightens the realism in the story. Real life is not always straightforward, and Salinger captures this brilliantly.
Some readers will find some of the references and topics dated—and at times, laughable. For instance, Holden is criticized by his younger sister or other people he knows because of his foul language characterized by God’s name in vain. (For contrast, one of the books read at my high school used the f-word copiously. The fact that people still call out this book for its explicit language makes me chuckle.) Cigarettes are smoked by everyone and their mother, and the word “necking” is used to refer to making out and to insinuate sexual desire. If these things don’t offend you, you probably won’t object to the “immoral” content of the book.
Where the book particularly shines is when it leaves you questioning. Was Holden sexually abused? Is he mentally ill? Why is he obsessed with “phonies”? Why is he focused on the ducks? Holden is also a compulsive liar, which leads the reader to wonder whether or not he’s even telling us the truth.
Some may find Holden unlikable and see the story as a tale of him whining about the world. Upon reflection and research, the book takes a different shape—one of adolescent struggles, feelings of loneliness, and a semblance of immaturity that colors all of our pasts in some way. He’s not a lovable character, but he’s painfully relatable.
If you read this when you were younger, I encourage you to read it again in a few years. You may be able to see Holden—and yourself—in a different light.
by Haylie Book
The young adult novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas written by John Boyne takes place in Germany during the second World War. The narrator is a young boy named Bruno. Bruno is a naive narrator, as he is too young to fully realize the extent of his situation. Bruno’s family moves to a new home, although he does not find out until later that they moved out of Germany and into Poland. Bruno gradually gathers information as the story goes on, wistfully pulling at the audience’s heart strings. Bruno discovers a wire fence at the new house that keeps him from exploring the entire property and can see people dressed in striped pajamas and caps across the fence. Bruno’s grandma told his father how disappointed and ashamed she was in him for the work he was doing. Bruno realizes that the people on the other side of the fence are treated much differently than himself and his family. All of these realizations begin to build up as the audience makes connections to the reality of Bruno’s situation.
What makes this story work is the innocence of Bruno. Nearly right off the bat, the audience recognizes what is happening: Bruno’s father runs a concentration camp filled with Jewish people. This makes it painful to continue to read through Bruno and his purity. Bruno tries to make friends with people on the other side of the fence by giving them food or playing games with them. In his mind, he sees no difference between himself and them. However, he begins to realize that his father and his father’s workers treat them much differently. They do not give them as much food. They only get the striped pajamas to wear. They must work all day every day. Bruno’s young mind does not understand why this happens. He is inquisitive of the situation, but he never considers himself to be superior to them.
The length of this story is perfect. There is just enough information and detail to make the audience connect with Bruno in a way that makes the rest of the story incredibly tragic. The story does not drag on to a point that makes it repetitive or boring. Every scene is intended to make the audience realize the chilling nature of the situation or bring you closer to Bruno as a character. By doing this, the audience is able to fully grasp the family dynamic, as well as dig into Bruno’s young mind.
The ending of this story is what makes it so impactful. It takes something as serious as World War Two and makes us think about it in an even deeper and frightening manner. The ending is like a punch to the gut. It does not glorify any aspect of the war; instead, it makes concentration camps seem like the horrendous camps that they were. Without giving away the ending and spoiling it for anybody who has not read it, I would encourage anybody who is interested in World War Two, or even just in a well-rounded, heartbreaking story, to read this book. It is a quick read, but you may have to occasionally set the book down and take a breather, so as to keep your emotions from going overboard. It takes a lovable, innocent narrator and tells a poignant and moving story that takes you on an emotional rollercoaster the entire way through.
This book can be found in nearly any store where books are sold. I’d recommend getting your hands on a copy and hopping into the story with a few tissues in hand.
by Abigail Fellin
James Zarzana was our guest blogger of the essay "Madness" and the author of the Marsco Saga (which can be found on Amazon). Below is a collection of excerpts from an email interview with him over his experience with literature and writing.
Why did you decide to study literature?
I committed to studying English in my undergraduate days…But, I love stories. I love the way a story can bring the reader into a life or taut situation, and the reader comes away understanding “life” and possibly themselves better. (Yes, I’m that type of idealist.)
Loved Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens. I leaned toward British writers. At first, I was going to specialize in the 18th Century British lit with its urbane and witty verse, but once I dug into the 19th C British novel, I was hooked.
I read on your website that after retiring from teaching, you took on the full-time job of writing. Why writing?
You know, when a student would ask me “why?” my response often was, “well, why not?” I was in the classroom or at an administrator’s desk for 41 years. I wanted to retire “early” (by only two years) so I could devote myself to fulltime writing. I had one Marsco novel published by then, it was getting great reviews, and I wanted to be flexible about my writing and my time to present. I wanted to focus on my writing while I was “young” enough to finish all the works I had in draft form.
I have always written something. I wrote a novel in college, which looking back, I realize now was “fan fiction,” a term that did not exist in 1970. (Exist to me, at any rate.)
So, why write? Why not? I have these stories to tell, they are timely—a megacorporation takes over the world, sound too much like today. Alt-news, the end of our democracy, violence everywhere, rule of law gone. As Wilfred Owen, the great World War One poet, wrote, “All poets can do is warn.” I write to warn.
While “Madness” is a short essay, you typically write longer fiction novels that have more of a futuristic feeling to them. Why do you like to write in this genre?
Marsco came naturally to me. I just started writing it, just jumped in. Now, I organize more, I outline ahead, and think about my characters much more before I write than when I jumped into Marsco. As a teen, I read a good deal of sci-fi from HG Wells to Julies Verne to the modern Americans (Bradbury). I was a high school junior when Star Trek started on TV. (“Live long and prosper!” I was a trekkie before there were trekkies.) I was teaching high school and finishing my MA when Star Wars hit. And yes, I stood in line for three hours to see it during its opening weekend. This was before Netflix and movie rentals, but I managed to see it seven times over the next few months, including once seeing it as a pirated copy shown at a pizza parlor—grainy and with poor audio.
Sci-fi gives the writer a chance to set all the rules. If I wrote a Civil War novel or a World War II novel (and I have outlines for both of these), then to be accurate, I would have to limit the role and condition of women, for example. Although the Federal Army fought to free the slaves, they were hardly thinking of racial equality the way—I hope—we think about it today. So, writing set in another era has to deal with all that era’s dust under the rug.
With my sci-fi, I can set my own agenda…Sci-fi also allows me to write about today without directly doing it, naming it.
You have already published two books of your four-book saga. What challenges and rewards have you come across along the way?
The rewards are that I do have a print copy I can hold up. My work is available as a Kindle download to any Kindle-ready device. I have had people read it on their phones, on Nooks, on laptops. You can order a print-on-demand copy. So, it’s rewarding in that sense. I received a very favorable, stared review from Blue Ink Review, which reviews mostly self-published writers and is used by libraries across the country to highlight self-published authors like myself. I noticed my sales to libraries spiked. So, that’s good.
I went with self-publishing after years and years of trying to secure a literary agent. Self-published writers are growing in number, and the publishing world and book sales world is changing as that number grows. Amazon commands the market, not brick-and-mortar stores like Barnes and Nobles. So, publishing as I do, any reader can find it anywhere in the world if they can get to the Internet. So, no one from North Korea is reading it, but I have had sales in Europe, in Canada, in the US.
So, challenges: seeking an agent and not finding one. I sent out over 100 query letters. Very frustrating. When I do my next sci-fi novel, my non-Marsco novel set in London, I will again seek an agent. But, now, with half the series self-published, it is hard to find anyone interested in me. I’ll try fresh with my next series. Who knows? Maybe I’ll ride an elevator with Steven Spielberg and he’ll make Marsco into a movie.
Another reward is that, with the two books in print, I have the cred to speak on writing. I love giving Q&A format discussions about my work, about writing in general. (Several of these are on YouTube under James Zarzana.) I also present a workshop titled, “Getting Started Writing Ficton.” I have given that at libraries, like ours in Marshall and up in Alexandria, Minnesota.
by James A Zarzana
“It’s always too soon to quit.” - Rudy
Lately, I have been thinking about the madness it takes to start writing a novel and see it through to its completion. It takes all the usual preliminary work: an outline, several character sketches, months of drafting, countless months of editing. Then, the text needs all the publishing aspects: cover design, interior layout, back cover comments. It’s not something to whip out in an afternoon.
“Be patient with the wait,” Oprah reminds us. And Seamus Heaney tells us, “Getting started, keeping going, getting started again—in art and life, it seems to me, is the essential rhythm.”
It is the staying with the text that makes it happen. Writing a novel, a history, a biography, is god-awful work. Endless work. I know this sounds pity-party, but these miraculous marvels readers enjoy don’t float onto the shelves of our libraries as though writers produced them as easily as we can download them to a Kindle. “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work,” Anthony Powell noted. And he’s the author of a twelve-novel series, A Dance to the Music of Time. No easy feat taking characters from their school days in the 1920s up through the 1960s.
It is by not paying attention to all the pitfalls and dead ends that makes this work possible. The writer has to ignore the obvious drudgery and love the task—every part of it, from the printer jamming, to the need to edit a chapter again, to the desire to read the work aloud to hear the dialog clearly. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead sort of tommyrot.
Thankless, often. This isn’t happening at your local coffee shop. It happens in your writing space, and with any luck, all fledging writers have a dedicated writing space. “A room of your own with a lock on the door,” as Virginia Woolf tells us. Maybe we have to settle for a corner of some room. Or even a spot under the stairs—a nice literary echo in that. Somewhere that is hers or his alone. The space is ours. The mess is ours. That special ambiance is ours. Like Fanny Price at Mansfield Park living in unheated rooms, but with a desk and ample paper for writing when the ink isn’t frozen.
And yet, it still remains folly that drives us all forward. What is it about our task that commands and holds our collective attentions? Is it our unique characters? Or those final, infuriating plot twists? How that kiss might feel if pressed to our cheek? It is all senseless, irrational behavior.
Better to take up knitting or baking or jigsaw puzzles. . . anything with defined parameters and a set goal line. I hear bowling is really nice. Something measurable that would please the Board of Teaching. Walking your dog should bring you back home with a dog, ideally, the same one you started out with. That’s not always the case with writing. I started a novel with a twelve-year-old boy who promptly told me he was man, and I had better get to revising quickly because he was grown up now and not putting up with idle youth again.
And how about this? The writer reads another novel. Then, he says to himself, I can use this particular technique in my own work. Or another writer realizes this would be a greater way to run her still-in-draft-form, ho-hum love story. Or that the shading of that just-read dialog—the hesitation captured in words, the nuance the speaker utters but her listener misses, the humor in the dry reply—they are all too tempting not to knead into our own story.
And yet, it all remains imprudent, reckless, foolhardy.
“With the voices singing in our ears, saying that this was all folly,” T. S. Eliot muses.
How do you take a blank sheet of paper and start writing something vaguely about hobbits and a magic ring and a dragon hoard without being slightly off the beam? Is your colleague down the hallway going to listen to that?
Or a boy—just your average, gawky preteen with broken glasses—who is a wizard but who doesn’t even know what the hell a wizard is. And that once an obsessed evil wizard tried and failed to kill this boy who is a good wizard. The priest in the confessional probably thought you came to talk over your sins.
A whale. A white whale. A lunatic captain. A naïve sailor jotting it all down. Does that work as scintillating dinner conversation?
Young girl, smart but not the most attractive at the ball. But light on her feet, and quick with a quip, and deadly smart, and boasting a wonderful smile. Snubbed at a dance. Then, in the end, capturing the heart of the man who snubbed her. . . and then promptly rejecting this same man’s proclamations of love. You going to mention that in your car pool? Again?
How do you justify setting all these ideas down? Completely? Smoothly? That task is at least a year or two in the making. With no guarantee that anyone at all will ever read your words anyway. What do you say to your spouse or mother or children? Does your family plot to lock you up? Take away your computer and printer? Stop buying you inkjets? Make you do the dishes for a change?
Or worse yet, humor you. That’s nice, dear. Yes, pretend it’s the Panama Canal, bury them in a basement, dear.
It’s all madness. Infuriating madness.
We have no one to blame but ourselves. I think. Or maybe a high school English teacher. Or a prof that first year in college. Or the one novel we love and can’t stop rereading.
Madness and folly! Goats and monkeys! Yet, we go on.
Editors note: This short essay was written by James Zarzana about the struggle of being a writer. Stayed tuned for an interview with him next week!
by Abigail Fellin
Samantha Hirschman graduated from Buena Vista University just last spring (May 2017) with a Bachelors of Arts degree in Corporate Communications and a minor in business. Below is an interview with Samantha almost a year later.
What did you do right after graduation?
Right after graduation, I moved to Ames, Iowa and worked at Sam's Club for the summer. I was accepted into the Masters of Education in Student Affairs program at Iowa State. I wanted to move to Ames to get acclimated to the city before starting my program in August.
What are you doing now?
I am currently at Iowa State University. I am a graduate assistant in the Student Activities Center (SAC). Though next year, my graduate assistantship will be with Ivy College of Business Career Services. In my current SAC assistantship, I help with the recognition process of student organizations. I maintain the SAC facebook page, help with promotional efforts for our bowling alley, CyBowl & Billiards, and provide support to the student programming organization, Student Union Board.
What about BV best prepared you for life after graduation?
Although my courses taught me the skills to do the work, it was in my extracurricular activities that I practiced my skills and developed as an individual. Outside of the classroom was where I experienced challenge. Where there is challenge, there is growth. During the fall semester of my junior year, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Rome, Italy. I received funding from the institution that helped me pay for the travel costs. Studying abroad was easily the most influential experience I had during my four years.
Do you have any advice for people who are about to graduate? Either from high school or undergrad?
My best advice would be to remind yourself that where there is challenge, there is growth. College is not easy, so be proud of yourself if you are about to graduate. And if you are able to graduate from high school, keep your wide eyes open. Your imagination and excitement will be what helps you throughout your experience. If you are a student who feels you do not have the access to college, I see you. There are resources available to make college happen if you want to attend.
I was told you use to work in the CAE as a writing tutor. Do you think these experiences helped you after college? Would recommend that others who are offered this experience try it?
I was a Writing Tutor for three years. It was and still is the foundation for why I want to do Student Affairs work. I believe that this experience encouraged me to open my mind. It helped me build skills that I may otherwise have not been able to. I do believe students can benefit greatly from being tutors. It can be very beneficial for someone to build their interpersonal skills while learning how to teach and facilitate learning. Anyone who is offered an opportunity to be a tutor, I would tell them that it can be an invaluable experience. It is an incredible opportunity. No two tutors are alike - everyone has their own way of teaching and own style of communication. It is not a position to take lightly however, because your ability to facilitate learning can impact a student's academic life.
Do you have a favorite book/author?
My favorite author is Nicholas Sparks. I have always enjoyed reading his love stories. I am a romantic and find excitement in reading a great love story. I am also a nerd though so I enjoy reading theory in textbooks and articles.