Tag Archives: creative nonfiction

Book Review: Be Prepared Reminisces on the Trials of Sleepaway Camp and Adolescence

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and author's bio.

Some spoilers.

I think it speaks very well of Vera Brosgol’s autobiographical graphic novel Be Prepared that I stayed up late to finish this ARC the same night that I brought it home from the store. I think it speaks even more highly of it that more than three months later (how did I leave it for so long?) in reminding myself of the plot for this review, I ended up pretty much rereading the whole of the text without it feeling tired, even though I knew its twists and turns.

The novel plunged me into a perspective to which I really hadn’t given much thought, that of the immigrant Russian American—though the plight of the immigrant is something I think about often—especially just now. I know only a very little about any of Russian history—and what I have learnt has been more from British and Australian period dramas and Disney’s Anastasia than from classes where truth outweighed drama. Most of what I’ve learnt has been from the point too of view of the exiled aristocracy than the average Russian citizen.

But some things are universal: the desire to fit in with peers, the desire to have the best birthday party, the drama of adolescence and the struggle of adolescent friendships, particularly as teens begin to experience romantic attraction, the fear of and longing for stay-away summer camp….

Vera is the odd one out among her more affluent peers in Albany, an immigrant to America, having been born in Russia but immigrated before she turned five. Her mother’s peers are primarily Russian immigrants, fellow parishioners of their Russian Orthodox Church. Vera tries to throw a birthday party to match her classmates’, but her mother relies on gifts and help from the Church, leaving Vera with a party that is more Russian than she’d like. Her classmates leave in the night before the sleepover ends. All of her classmates head to camp during the summer, but Vera has never been allowed to go, the cost being too great. Upon discovering a Russian camp in Connecticut, a place where she won’t be the odd one out, she convinces her mother to accept the Church’s help to get Vera and her younger brother there.

But Vera still feels like the odd one out among the other campers. She is divided from her brother, put with the older of the camp groups in a cabin with two girls, five years her seniors, who have not only been going to the camp for twelve years but have shared a cabin for the whole of that time. The camp requires them to speak Russian as much as is possible, which isn’t a problem for Vera, but she does not read the language well, and she doesn’t know the camp customs.

After two weeks, the only friends that Vera feels that she has made are the chipmunks that she’s fed despite the rules—and even one of them has betrayed her by biting her.

But a chance encounter with a runaway guinea pig wins her a friend at last in Kira, a younger girl from another group. They admire one another, help one another to grow, and encourage one another. Together the two of them set out to conquer camp, to best the boys at last in the weekly capture-the-flag game.

This is a novel about being comfortable in your own skin and in the connections that you make, and about not judging on first impressions. From Vera’s belief in the true friendship of her classmates who abandon her, to her initial exile of Kira because she is younger and always crying over her missing guinea pig, to her belief that her brother is enjoying camp, initial impressions prove wrong again and again.

I enjoyed the pacing of this novel. I think Brosgol used some great tricks to keep the story going through periods of stagnation. At one point, a couple weeks of camp activities are expressed in a letter to her mother below the text of which the panels more honestly express Vera’s experiences at the camp. Moments of quiet contemplation are overlaid once by the action of swinging on a play set to give the panel some action. At others her thoughts are related to moments in Russian history, which were informative as well as informing the character.

The graphic novel is such a popular genre right now for middle grade readers, and I think readers will find this at once a relatable and unique perspective on feelings we’ve all had and experiences many of us might have shared.

****

Brosgol, Vera. Be Prepared. Color by Alec Longstreth. New York: First Second-Roaring Brook-MacMillan-Holtzbrinck, 2018.

This review is not endorsed by Vera Brosgol, Alec Longstreth, First Second, Roaring Brook Press, MacMillan Publishers, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holding Limited Partnership.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Challenge: Legal Theft: Binary (381 words)

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Dread is bubblegum and hot pink. It spews from big lips and big eyes and big breasts. It cinches like an impossibly narrow waist. It smells like fake tans and cosmetic. It’s heavy on shoulders I can’t bare because it will be a distraction to the boys in school, because men will use my bare shoulders as an excuse to touch and to catcall and to chase and to capture and to smother and to crush and to tear. These are facts I’ve understood if I haven’t been able to vocalize them since I was old enough to have these blonde haired models splay their legs to sit horseback bare-butted because tight dresses wouldn’t let them ride. Their legs don’t spread wide enough and they never came with pants; they were meant to stand tall and straight and pretty on feet bent unnaturally by high heels that I’ve lost in corners and under the bed. These dolls were never meant to act. They were never meant to do.

There’s the lesson. Stand straight, wear heels, wear lipstick and eye shadow and eyeliner and mascara. We’ll tell you that you can be anything, but you can do nothing, and you need to remember it.

To do anything is unnatural.

Know your limits.

Know your place.

Know your worth.

$9.99 the package says.

That price tag is like a ball and chain around legs that must sting from the bite of a razor because a manufacturer needs more money and they say that my natural hair is ugly, is unkempt, is unsanitary. It hobbles legs that shouldn’t touch one another at the thighs but do, that chafe beneath skirts that are mandatory for formal occasions.

There are no choices in this aisle. There are only limits and boundaries.

This, it says, is girl. This is feminine. The next aisle over—the aisle of blue and trucks and heroes and weapons and tool kits—is not for you. Those are what you cannot be. And here is what you are and what you cannot do.

Stand straight, wear heels, cover up your face, eat less, bend and break your bones, pinch your body till it fits in the plastic mold and you can stand with pride beside these dolls on the shelves, an example.

This week I challenged my friends to join me in the muddy, bloodied waters of gender conformity and nonconformity because it is a topic that’s been thrust into the limelight of late and it’s been on my mind. This was not really the piece I intended to write. I intended to explain how I think gender is a man-made problem and any adherence to a binary is foolish. Instead what you got was an imagined walk down a fictional but too realistic aisle in a toy store—you all know the one—and everything it makes me feel and says to me now. I didn’t want to write this piece because it’s been said before—again and again and again—but I’m still hearing that there are only two choices, defined by blue and pink, by male protagonist and female protagonist. I know things have improved and the aisle that I describe is largely that of my childhood in the 90s, but if people are still toting this binary defined by marketing, apparently, I still need to write and publish this piece.

Good night.

Trebez from Machete Diplomacy joined me in this challenge. Her piece, “Rib to Rib,” is way more subtle. Thanks, Trebez!

Challenge: Legal Theft: An Education (507 words)

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She had only heard gunshots at a distance. Sometimes an explosion echoing through a tranquil wood, a wild fire in a distant part of the forest, the question of life or death for sport. Sometimes a sound that might have been a shot or might have been a car backfiring or might have been a transformer blowing and shutting down power to a block that wasn’t hers, something that she had chosen to believe was anything but while the question lingered. Mostly she knew the sound of gunfire from films, depictions of violence after which actors stood up, unhurt, and walked away, blank rounds and a bit of gunpowder to make a light like a firework maybe if the era or the drama called for it.

What news footage she had been forced to witness by well-meaning teachers, she had suppressed or lost to the doldrums of busywork and summers where she didn’t have to learn.

What she knew of gun violence was not firsthand. She knew people who knew people but had never known anyone. She had seen what it had done to those who knew people. She knew enough about human experience from fiction and experience to know what it did to people who knew people, even before she knew people.

She remembered a day in middle school when too many lives had stopped and the world had tilted and flung weeping students into teachers’ arms and shook out flags, when breaths were short and quick, and tumult had come crashing down like airplanes out of the sky, like a set of buildings.

That day seared.

That day years later anytime could still be conjured in stark-shadowed Baroque and flashbulb image. Images and camera footage kept resurfacing on anniversaries and in unexpected places.

That day could still cause horror and anger—anger for the hurt caused, for the hurt that could be caused again by a simple illustration, a brief reminder, for the unthinking reminder.

Then another day. More questions. A lone gunman this time. A gunman in a school. A day that had to be gotten through when others’ days had been ended too soon. Every child a reminder, every parent and child another whiplash, a ghost of a similar embrace lost that day. A tiny town struck silent while a nation, while a world turned eyes that couldn’t yesterday have found it on a map, and a president who could pronounce names like Tehran and Kabul fumbled the name in a speech in a town he would never otherwise have visited.

Now a day. Two dead. One hurt. One running. Questions. Where? Here? A clip unloaded, a clip uploaded, a clip gone viral. Everywhere. CNN? BBC? Everyone talking. What will happen? What did happen? What have you heard? What do you know?

The schools locked down all over. Grief counselors coming into schools because of two people the students never met.

Students too young to understand, and all the parents’ talking. All the news channels showing.

Are they thinking?

What do they remember?

There is an oft quoted and misquoted and misattributed quote: “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”  (Quote Investigator attributes this quote to sportscaster Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith.)  This is one of those pieces.  It poured out of me after cutting a vein, and I’ve not edited it much sense spilling it onto the page.

And then I made it the legal theft line of the week, a tricky challenge.

Trebez at Machete Diplomacy used the line to write “Shots and Seconds” and made some interesting observations about gunshots.

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Succeed” (877 words).

C.C. at Creatures, Critters and Crawlers wrote “Reunion.”

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad wrote “Making a Name.”

And Bek at Yeah. But So What? Everybody’s Weird wrote “Robbery” (256 words).

Challenge: Legal Theft: When All Else Fails (322 words)

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Oranges meant vitamin C, and vitamin C meant a swifter recovery. She wasn’t sure if that logic really ought to apply to orange-flavored tea or orange cake, but even so she felt a little better with a bite of spongy cake in her mouth and the fragrance of the tea wafting from her mug. The placebo effect, she knew, but belief was a powerful thing, and it meant an excuse to eat cake and drink tea. She even wore orange blossom perfume on her wrists, hoping that carrying the essence with her would help. It was probably more the perfume than the orange blossom fragrance that helped her feel more awake, more put together, healthier.

Illness was a funny thing. Sure it was physical. There was definitely something amiss when her glands swelled and each swallow seemed to drag sharp claws along her throat and when her nose clogged with yellow mucus. But the battle—that was mental—or could be.

It was all about feeling better. Feel better, and the being better would come.

Besides, there was nothing else to do about a cold. A cold would run its course and run you over if you let it, and no amount of medications could do anything but mask the pain and misery.

Those medications might as well be tea and cake.

The line stolen this week was mine, and the line itself might tell you why the piece didn’t get written ahead of time.  This week when I meant to be writing the distractions were vast.

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Beacon Heights, Linville, NC.

And many.

My sister's robe not mine.

My sister’s robe not mine.

So my apologies that this piece is short and perhaps not all I dreamed it to be.

My dutiful and wonderful thieves are:

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master, who wrote “Invention” (748 words).

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad, who wrote “Bolstering Immunities.”

Trebez at Machete Diplomacy, who wrote “Bedside Manner.”

and Bek at Yeah, But So What? Everybody’s Weird, who wrote “Illness Recovery” (432 words).

Challenge: Legal Theft: We Flew Higher (569 words)

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Airports are a strange place, a place of waiting, a place of change, a place of passing, a place of chance encounters. Round as a temple, like a wheel, doorways open at the ends of spokes, and through them people pass, in and out, touching down and taking off. Airports are hubs. They remind me of taverns, wayside inns, except we’ve forgotten how to use them—for meetings, for exchanges. We don’t use them for chance encounters. We see hundreds of people, and some of them look familiar, like an intersection in your hometown, where you frequently stop, look both ways, but never stay, like someone you should know. But we keep our heads down, noses pressed to books or phones or i-devices, and we don’t talk expect to those we came with. We talk to no one if we came alone.

Planes are even stranger. You’re delegated to a small seat that you’re only allowed to leave during certain periods when everything else is behaving as the pilot would have it. Often you can only stand by disturbing someone else. The staff decides when and what you eat, and its usually overcooked and determined to be subpar by those who know. On longer flights, the staff decides too when you should sleep and when you should wake. Rules dictate behavior, and your seating partner becomes your only companion.

Too frequently we ignore our cellmates in the airplane as much as we ignore the other pilgrims in an airport. We miss the chances. We take the earbuds that our wardens provide us, and we plug ourselves into the small screen that is all that we can see if we look ahead. We look ahead instead of looking sideways at those with whom we bump elbows. If we look sideways, our eyes are captured by others’ screens.

And we forget about others.

I looked left.

The screen was still stuck on its homepage.

And I was greeted by a shy smile.

His black hair fell a bit toward his dark eyes. His teeth were white.

Haltingly, in a language that was not his first, he introduced himself, and I gave him my name, and we made small talk, exchanged destinations and where we’d been and why we were traveling.

That might have been the end of it, but we had eleven hours with only each other to talk to, and the entertainment provided by the plane was not in his language and did not cater to ESL.

So when the plane leveled out and we’d found that our eyes watered from staring at a screen too near and our feet hurt from our confinement and our knees ached with no where to go, we turned to each other again, and we began again to exchange stories in that stuttering English, where we ended sentences with the climb of a question, and we supported our meanings with our hands.

And somehow the hours passed. And somehow his face became familiar, and his smile more easy, and the conversation, the way his face and hands moved more engaging than the latest action films with which the plane tried to lull me, with which I was meant to be distracted, which were meant to fill my head with prescribed fluff.

They meant to tie us down, to keep us grounded even as we sought the clouds.

Together, we flew higher, Huan and I.

My sincerest apologies to Bek, my readers, and myself. I first wrote that first line in an airport at early o’clock in the morning and then next at slightly later o’clock in the morning after a heavy sleep and before running off to work. I didn’t notice till I was typing it up again that it was grammatically incorrect. Nevertheless, Bek took it and ran with it, and you should check out “Traveling Woes” on her blog, BuildingADoor, to see how she overcame my clumsiness.  I really like her piece and you might too.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Because I Could Drown (631 words)

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You and I, we enjoy one another’s company, I don’t think there’s any denying that on either side, but when it comes to the big things in life, while I hope that we can have a rational discussion, I fear that there won’t be understanding without an alteration of the heart, and I know the ground I stand on, and I won’t move.  

I don’t adhere to any particular branch of Christianity because for me Christianity is not a religion but a relationship with God, but I have chosen to believe the Christian history of God.  I believe that the Bible is God-inspired.

Is it the only God-inspired text?  Maybe not.  Maybe other sacred texts are God-inspired too because a lot of them hold similar root messages.  I don’t believe that prophets are infallible.  Peter climbed out of the boat, and he walked on water, but then he doubted and he sank.  Paul started as a hunter of the Christians and became one of the greatest teachers of Christianity.  David killed his friend to steal his wife.  The differences in the texts might be moments where the prophet doubted and he felt the winds and he felt the waves or even where he sank.  I don’t know.

What I know is that God is real.  He’s a friend of mine, and He watches out for me daily.  I see him in the eyes of my friends and in the way that their hearts bend towards the less fortunate and towards one another.  I feel him in the little moments of a car crash barely avoided, a kind word from a customer, something that goes right when I didn’t think that it could, that time that I got a 90 on the Latin test that I didn’t study for until breakfast that morning and the words of which I didn’t know when I left for class.

Somehow or another, you’ve turned your face from God, but I don’t think He’s turned from you, and maybe I’m here to throw you a life preserver, but I don’t know that I can be certain of you in a lifelong partnership.  If I pull you back on the boat, will you be able to find the life preserver if I need ever it?  Will you remind me where it is when I forget?  I want you on the boat–I want that badly–but I want a seasoned sailor–one who knows the Captain and knows the ship–to help me when I’m flailing in the water–and maybe that’s horribly selfish, it’s definitely a thought driven by fear, but it’s how I feel.

I hope you can understand that I can’t give up my First Husband for my second.  I need the second to be able to accept and love my First Husband or the partnership becomes unequal and the marriage fails to be what I want it to be, not that either is head but that each is the helpmeet of the other, the one that makes the other work best in the role that each is given by their gifts.  Because I won’t give up the One Man that I’m sure that I can depend upon for anything, despite anything, the One Man without flaw who I could find in the whole of the universe.

And I’m sorry if that hurts.  Hurting you is not what I want.  But I can’t trust my body to one with whom I cannot trust my soul.

And I hope that we can be friends still because I truly do enjoy your company, and I don’t want to lose you from this, but I had to let you know how I felt.  I had to let you know my fears.  No relationship can exist without openness.

Gwen’s a thief!  She stole this first line to write “As Loud As We Laugh,” which you can find on her blog, Apprentice, Never Master.

This is a subject I’ve been thinking and worrying about a lot lately.  And while we’re talking about fears, I’m not sure how I feel now about putting this out on the Internet and attaching my name to it, but when I wrote it, I was pretty certain that it needed to be available for the wider consumption of the Internet in some form at some time.  Then I remembered that I’d been asked if I was participating in this week’s legal theft.   I used this line for legal theft because the timing was opportune and, yes, I was interested to see what would become of it if I sent it out of context into the world.  I hope you all will take my words and fears as an opinion of an individual and not a wider population, and I hope you won’t judge me and especially not others harshly for what I’ve said.  But I hope this is what some of you need or want to hear; for whatever reason, I hope it comforts or uplifts you.  I hope you can see the hope and strength I have in my first marriage.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Knifed (284 words)

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People talk about palpable tension, tension that you can cut with a knife.  I always thought that that was fiction and poetic language for romance novels, rom-coms, fanfics, and Tumblr.  I never would have believed it was real.  But here it is, heavy on my shoulders and on my eyelids.  Is this why people lower their lashes before whispering “I love you”s?

God, I’d like to roll my eyes, but he’s not a bad guy; I don’t want to hurt him, and rolling my eyes right as he’s mustering the courage to get out the words would hurt him.  Maybe I should have followed the others inside, but how would I have done that without making it obvious, and I’d only have been delaying the inevitable, wouldn’t I?  Maybe it’s best that he get this out now.  But he hardly knows me.  I hardly know him.

Those words cut through the tension just like a knife, and that knife plunges into me, spilling an answer, but then that knife is in my gut and twisting, chiding.

I long for the simpler days of high school romances, when we’d known each other for nine years or more.  We knew a lot about each other before we’d even met in a town like mine, and when you’d been friends first, it was easy to just enjoy the date without worrying about the introductions.

I remember those dates.  They were nothing more than two friends of the opposite gender going to see a film.  The expectations were there, but were superseded by the need that we felt to uphold the friendship.  And that’s what I want now, and that can’t happen without a friendship first to protect.

Kate is a thief!  She stole my first line and used it to write “From the Diary of a Doomed Man” for her blog, More Than 1/2 Mad.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Still Home (509 words)

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The town may have changed, but it still felt like home.  Where once there was a cornfield across from her preschool, a Costco had been raised, complete with its own gas station.  The potholed parking lot and empty strip mall had been replaced with a Big Y, and they had cut down a lot of the trees to make the building more visible from the road behind it.  The towering willow tree in front of the elementary school had fallen in a storm, leaving the school’s front visible from the road, making it seem somehow sharper, though the decorations in the second grade classrooms helped to soften the building’s exterior again. The subtle marina that had allowed the lake its rightful prominence had been replaced by what looked like a displaced Alpine-style ski lodge.

But the lake was the same.  The hills were the same.  The streets hadn’t changed.  The aroma of grilled fish still wafted over the parked motorcycles around the restaurant by the turn.

Up the hill past the restaurant that hadn’t been any one place long enough to have a name, her parents’ house—her house—was still there—and still unchanged, though the massive spruce had been lost in the same storm as the willow—and that was unsettling.  Her sister’s bedroom window had always been hidden behind the spiny branches—much like her sister.

It was a small house, a boxy one-story ranch from the 70s.  The neighborhood had once been all one-story ranches from the 70s, but the ranches had been built upon by most of the home-owners and now her house and the house of her across-the-street neighbor were dwarfed by two-stories with bay windows.

The walkway was still broken and overgrown brick with the dry stone wall that held up the larger garden threatening to topple under the weight of weeds and planted perennials to crush the dainty pansies and babies’ breath below it, and the pansies and babies’ breath threatening to reclaim the walkway.

Both the glass and the red door behind creaked when she pulled them open, and she had to pull them shut behind, since they wouldn’t close on their own.

There was that strange smell of rot and mold that her father had complained about.  Boxes were piled on the chest beneath the window while the couch looked empty without a nest of blankets built by either her or her sister.  Worse than empty nest, she thought.  Just empty.

No one was home.  She knew they wouldn’t be.  They both worked now, but it was the only time that she could make it and she needed to pick up a few things.  She needed to make sure that things were all right after the broken pipe.

The cat darted away from her behind the couch.  She knew better than to try to coax her out again, though she hoped each time that the cat would befriend her, remember her, and let her scratch her again beneath the chin.

Her footsteps seemed abnormally loud on the bowed wood.

Is there specific term for someone who steals repeatedly from the same person?  This week’s line again has come from Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad, where you can find her original story, “Unwelcome Party,” which uses this line.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Unwanted Visitor (391 words)

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An involuntary squeal leaps from her lips, and she stumbles back, nearly slips, throws a hand out to steady herself against the wall.  She quickly retracts that hand.  It’s too near him, too vulnerable.  Her hands fly to cover what needs to be covered, to pull back all that she can away from him.

“Do you mind!” she sputters.

He makes no response.

“I should smash you,” she rails.  “I hate how you creep up on me like that.”

He scrabbles against the wall.  Scared by her tirade?  No.  It’s the water that’s making him skittish.

“I’m not helping you,” she assures him.  She tries to carry on with her business, but that feeling of being watched, of not knowing the whereabouts of her watcher keeps her turning around to look over her shoulder to the corner where he struggles against the current.

The footholds are few, but he manages.  How does he manage?  No, never mind.  She’d rather not know.  He pushes towards her.  And what can she do to prevent him?

She eyes the loofah at her feet.  She can’t not finish washing herself.  That would be ridiculous.  He’s still quite far away.  A quick squirt of body wash and a quick rub, all the while keeping her eyes on her guest, making sure he doesn’t come too close.  What will she do if he comes to close?  Scream, probably.  Slip and fall maybe.

He’s still against the wall.  He’s still struggling when she lets the water catch at her body, each bit in turn rather than standing under the torrent where she’ll be dangerously in range of his swing, of his bite.  Would he—can he bite?  It doesn’t matter.

Consciously keeping her arm as far away from him as possible, she reaches out and turns the water off.  She jerks the curtain aside, scrambles out onto the bath mat, and wraps the waiting towel around her body before facing her unwanted observer, with a little more bravado now that they aren’t sharing the same space.

“Fine,” she hisses.  “I’m giving you a second chance to live.  You keep away from my shower,” she demands.  “Stop bothering me.”  The growled threat wavers hollowly, “I won’t be merciful next time.”

She jerks the curtain closed.

“Spiders,” she shudders and leaves the bathroom to him, shutting the door behind her.

The Babbling Buzzard stole this first line for her fiction piece this week.  Go check it out!  The thief lord will also post links to all of our legal theft pieces here.