Image of covers

Reading Notes: Weedeater by Robert Gipe

Earlier this year, I posted some thoughts on Trampoline, the first in a related set of books by Robert Gipe. I recently finished the second book Weedeater, and I’d like to share a few thoughts again. This won’t be a review or plot summary, so if you want to know more about the book, check out the publisher’s site: https://www.ohioswallow.com/book/Weedeater

Dawn, the narrator of the first novel, takes turn narrating this time with a new character nicknamed Weedeater. I was glad at first to pick up Dawn’s story again, but that started to be a reason for me to postpone finishing this book. Though Trampoline by no means paints an optimistic portrait of the hardships faced in this Kentucky community, there were at least some flickers of hope that Dawn would find a path forward. Those flickers were extinguished in this novel, some quickly, some slowly. There was still a thread of humor and an appreciative eye for the land and the people that makes these books well worth the time, but I had to let go of some of my unrealistic expectations in order to finish reading.

The character of Weedeater was a gift, though. I am not sure I know how to describe him well. He is in some ways pathetic, bearing lasting physical and emotional wounds, in some ways comical, at least due to some of the situations he lands himself in and the reactions he discloses to the reader. He’s also lovable and appealing, even if he could be seen as the type who blends into the shadows of everyday life. I especially like how honest he is in his assessment of others and himself. He seems to me both broken and wholly innocent.

By the end of this second book, I feel so protective of these people, ravaged by addictions to coal and OxyContin, and it occurs to me these industries are what fund Senators Paul and McConnell, two politicians who work so very hard to do nothing for the people they are supposed to represent.

There are many zigs and zags in this book, major and minor events that echo the lack of control over their lives many of the characters experience. The scene that stands out the most for me is when Weedeater spends a day working in the coal mine, and Gipe helps us peek at a past and present almost unimaginable, one almost unbearable to experience.

As I neared the end of the book, it occurred to me that many parts could just as easily work as a poem. That may give you the wrong impression. Some novels are full of heavy prose, and that’s not the way this feels. It has its pragmatic moments, and a gritty humor balanced with a relentless sense of loss. But it was moving to hear the poetry singing underneath the story.

Ask again another time.

You asked me to tell you what I believe, and I thought I knew exactly what I would say. I believe in kindness, or some might call it empathy/compassion. Not necessarily the so-called random acts of kindness, which feel like a fad diet or a New Year’s resolution, too brief to hold meaning, too spurious to value, but rather the deepest type of kindness based on the expectation that everyone on this planet has intrinsic value and deserves to be treated with kindness. Don’t get me wrong—some individuals may deserve to be limited/constrained, or at the very least, experience a few consequences for their actions, but it should still be grounded in kindness.

But then I got tired or cranky or short-tempered, and I didn’t feel like a person who should be writing about kindness. Besides, is that what I believe or what I want to believe? Is belief something solid or something aspirational? Can belief be defended, given weight and texture, or must it always be ephemeral, something that shouldn’t be scrutinized too closely?

I’ve noticed when someone else believes something fiercely, in particular those who with strong religious beliefs and, on the other hand, absolute atheists, I move in the opposite direction. Yet, if you asked, I would have said that I’m the type to try to make sense of what someone is telling me rather than immediately opposing it. I am, perhaps, an unreliable narrator of my own life.

I realize that I don’t believe in absolute truths, but I appear to believe in heuristics, ideas that are mostly true except when they are not. Be kind to others is a heuristic because most of us can think of a time when our attempts at kindness backfired or led us to feel taken advantage of. Yet kindness is still generally a good idea. So here are a few others: Be honest with others and yourself. Celebrate the ways in which the world, life, and the people you meet are sources of wonder and joy. Reading/writing is a way of life. Democracy is a kind of life blood, as essential as air or water. Find ways to make meaning out of your life. No matter your age, keep learning, keep working, keep playing.

Now that I can call these heuristics rather than beliefs, I know I could compose an endless list. But what I believe? I feel like a magic 8 ball because you will get a different answer every time you ask, some the opposite of the last.

This post is part of a group blogging activity hosted by Bill, the blogger of A Silly Place. Here’s the link to the full collection of posts on the topic of What do you believe? https://billswritingplace.wordpress.com/2021/08/04/things-we-believe-in/#more-12108

Font of wisdom

Today I want to kvetch a bit about fonts. You see, I am super partial to serif fonts. To be honest, I love all fonts, even the ones that make me shudder at the thought of actually using them in anything someone else would have to read (I’m looking at you, Western font). But my favorites have serifs.

So a few years ago when someone I respected told me that we should only use sans serif fonts because they are easier for people with dyslexia to read, I bristled, and of course, felt a bit guilty about the bristle. I mean, I am on board with accessibility. But also I was trained years ago as a reading specialist, and there was no talk of fonts back then (plus there were questions about dyslexia as a specific diagnosis versus the more appropriate and all-encompassing phrase ‘reading disability,’ for which direct support in word knowledge, fluency, and comprehension matter more than worrying about fonts, especially once the reader has advanced past primary reading levels, which was true for the college-age audience we were discussing). I made a few doubtful sounds, and the person told me I was out of touch with the latest research, which was likely true, but I wasn’t 100% clear that my colleague’s sources were grounded in reading research, so I continue to prefer serif fonts but am open to using sans serif sometimes just in case he was right.

Fonts came to mind again recently after listening to a podcast where one of the speakers was an agent complaining about writers pitching using Courier font. She suggested that the default Arial was much better.

I had to take a few breaths because I really resent the way my Pages app tries to force me to use Arial on anything because it feels like such a lazy font to me, skipping serifs and breakfast as far as I can tell. I even created a special template called 14 point Times New Roman for when I refuse to even look at Arial. And don’t get me started on WTF is going on when I copy and paste text into a Google email?? Or make edits to the email before sending? These emails sometimes show up with strange variations in font type and size, and I feel as if I was walking around with my underwear showing if my email gets sent in that mixed font state.

While I would never send Courier to anyone (except maybe back in the day when I submitted a story to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s magazine and she wanted it in Courier— she of course rejected the story, but I loved having the rejection letter signed by her), I have an affection for it because it heralds for me old school typewriter writing (though not as well as the American typewriter font, which is the one I use in my online journal :)). For me, Courier evokes writers like Stephen King sending out zillions of stories to publications that no longer exist today.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that I decided to take a peek at recent research on fonts. I found some imprecise information online, including the fact that the British Dyslexia Society recommends sans serif font, but sources tell me it is unclear why they took this stance.

I then came upon an article in the International Journal of Psychology (citation below) that looked specifically at the impact of serif versus sans serif fonts when college students were asked to evaluate research articles. Now granted, this study is limited in scope, but it included some findings that resonated for me. First, their review of the literature was helpful. It showed what I (who just recently upped my eyeglasses prescription) would agree—font size affects readability and even reactions to what you read. Also, letter recognition is a base skill, acquired well before word recognition and likely less of a concern for intermediate and advanced readers.

The review of the research and this study found that sans serif fonts support faster reading speeds. On the other hand, for smaller font sizes, serifs were helpful because they cause the letters to be spaced out more, making it easier to read.

The study also yielded this result: serif fonts may have slowed the readers down a bit, but the readers found serif font texts easier to understand, and the serifs font increased the readers’ interest and appreciation for the texts.

Do I feel vindicated? A little. Should I? Probably not. It’s just one study. But it did strike me that when I pick up a book to read, it’s almost always in a serif font. When I read a book or article with a sans serif font, it often feels less professional to me. So there seems to be some kind of cultural vibe at work here, and one that may say more about my age or for the academic audience, than a strictly cognitive response.

Still, go team Times New Roman, American Typewriter, and Didot. And I still love you Helvetica Neue, Marker Felt, and Noteworthy.

Article discussed:

Kaspar, K., Wehlitz, T., von Knobelsdorff, S., Wulf, T., & von Saldern, M. A. O. (2015). A matter of font type: The effect of serifs on the evaluation of scientific abstracts. International Journal of Psychology, 50(5), 372–378.

Postscript: It may be time for me to change my blog so I use serifs again :).

Image of mountains

Life Inside/Outside

I set goals, almost daily. Since I teach time management tips to college students, you might say I set goals professionally. One of my goals was to read a poem or two every day, and right now I’m finding them on the poets.org website. Another goal was to blog on whatever stands out in my readings now and then, so I thought I’d comment on today’s poem by Hanae Jonas called “Pastoral.” I immediately connected with it. It reminded me of how I feel about growing up in the mountains of NC and spending time first in cities then back home again. I never quite feel as if I can call either city or country my own, nor do I feel as if anyone outside of this place quite gets it: “Cool/Said the flatlanders/Whose ranks I’d effectively joined.” After I read the poem, I read her remarks that she was trying to figure out how to write about Vermont—the inside and the outside, which feels right to me.

The next line hit home too: “While those I left drifted closer to one another/Or God, to the sources/Of life itself: children and dirt.” I note the irony in the final words: this poem explores what is imagined or constructed as much as what is real. Still, this glimpse of a community left to itself spoke to me. And perhaps the irony for me is that I am one of the ones who stayed, who prefers less in terms of the pace of life, and more in terms of family and nature, in ways that I’m pretty sure my friends who have left can’t fully understand.

And still people rarely see me as “from here,” and perhaps I never will be.

Fast reads vs slow reads

I’ve been working my way (slowly) through the back episodes of the very helpful and entertaining Print Run podcast. In a March 2017 episode, Laura and Erik discussed the vagueness and general inaccuracy of the category of books called “literary.” Many books that seem to fit well within a genre such as science fiction or mystery also have qualities that could be considered literary. Also, differentiating literary from other genres makes it sound as if one is better than the other.

I like the idea of rejecting literary as a category. General does feel like a better fit if a novel doesn’t fit neatly within one genre.

I’ve lately been thinking that some books are fast reads, while others are slow. I sometimes hear people describe a book that is a fast read as a “light read,” but I’m not sure that’s fair to these books. There can be richness and insight in a book I read quickly. Fast reads often, but not always, are clearly within a genre, and the expectations of the genre are partly what makes for a fast read. In a mystery, for example, I tend to expect a crime that needs to be solved, and I quickly recognize one character in a role like a detective and another as perpetrator.

But even novels that fit the mode of a traditional genre can be filled with dense language or insights, and by dense, I mean abundant and rich as opposed to hard-to-decipher. So that kind of novel would fall in my slow read category. I enjoy both kinds, for the record. Fast reads have a special allure because I get caught up into the story and race to the end, almost unaware of what is happening in the world around me as I jog after the answer to my driving goal to know what will happen next. I sometimes find myself skimming parts in my eagerness to keep going.

Slow reads, like slow food or mindful eating, ask me to slow down and savor each step. One book that comes to mind for me is Lorrie Moore’s A gate at the stairs, where I recall feeling torn between my curiosity to know what would happen to the protagonist and the discovery that almost every paragraph had a kind of inside joke or flash of irony or startling use of language.

It seems to me that some slow reads might be described as a reading experience—that is, the experience of connecting and absorbing everything as you go along.

I doubt these reflections help resolve the tension around trying to force a label on a novel, but it helps me to make sense of what brings me to a book as a reader, and what to consider when I construct a novel as a writer.

snapshot of book cover

Reading Notes on Robert Gipe’s Trampoline

I’ve been finding time, or making time, to read more often, and my best friend gifted me with three books by Robert Gipe, set in a coal-mining mountain region somewhere in eastern Kentucky. By a crow’s flight, it’s likely not that far from where I live in western North Carolina. The first novel is Trampoline, narrated by fifteen-year-old Jewell, who describes herself as a “freak, soft and four-eyed, with black fingernail polish, a dead daddy, a drunk momma, a crackhead brother, outlaw uncles, and divorced grandparents who made trouble for normal people every time they come off the ridge” (p. 70). As I read, I kept noticing how the setting and characters felt both familiar and unknowable to me. His portrait of individuals ravaged by poverty and addiction is neither unforgiving nor forgiving. I came away with so much sympathy for people locked into roles in which they become a danger to others, themselves, and the land they love.

Reading this book makes me wonder if it is ever possible to portray the truth of any person’s life, especially one in a position of such vulnerability or powerlessness. But the glimpses of what could be true within this portrait makes me wonder about the lives of people I have sat beside in waiting rooms or passed in the grocery store, the many glimpses of people living in these mountains that I do not know, that I try to but sometimes cannot really see.

I especially savored Gipe’s many metaphors and similes. The narrator/protagonist describes the board members at a state hearing “like prizes at a carnival game, eyes wide and blank, stuffed pink monkeys, green hippopotamuses piled too close together” (p. 12). Eyes often get an extra dose of language, such as, “‘How old are you, Dawn?’ The room went quiet when Decent asked. Her eyes were two humming outboard motors pushing a boat across summer waters. I water-skied behind her outboard motor eyes, rope tight pulling me across a rough glass like under a paste-gray sky” (p. 99). Black and white sketches further add to the impact of this illustrated novel.

My favorite moment captures the feel of this book. Dawn jumps off a small cliff to “practice kill” herself, only to land on a drunken aunt. The family that pushes her to despair is also there to break her fall.

To be clear, it is a moment both sad and funny, and I had to pace myself reading this novel because I could never predict when the story would make me laugh or cry.

Holding space for emergent occasions

I’ve been itching to write posts on light topics, to immerse myself in the inconsequential, but I have a few thoughts gnawing at me, like a splinter that needs to be removed.I just need to take a breath and be present, acknowledging losses as well as the grief and trauma felt by those left behind.

Some of the losses are worldwide—more than 3.3 million people have died, according to the NY Times (and I’ve heard this is an undercount). I sometimes see photos of people in Covid19 memorials on different media outlets (PBS NewHour, for example). It hurts to see their smiling faces, caught in a better moment. It is almost puzzling, this moment where you think, “But they were fine then….”

There are also losses closer to home—one of those human landmine moments occurred here in Boone, when a tortured young man committed homicide and suicide, including two members of law enforcement sent for a welfare check. Many of us know the families affected in one way or another, including neighbors shaken by this event, reminding us that tranquility is sometimes an illusion.

A young man on a motorcycle died in a car crash a few weeks later.

Others leave us with less fanfare, from age, from illness, from some other long-simmering challenge. Or due to ancient malice, the recurring flash points of war or violence exploding around the world.

I know it’s a bit dusty, but what makes the most sense to me comes from John Donne’s devotions, which I transcribe this way: No one is an island, entire of itself; every human is a piece of the continent….Any death diminishes me, because I am involved in humanity. Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”

That is, whether I know the person who died or not, each death is a loss to us all. We need everyone. I may connect or feel a loss more strongly depending on how I relate to or how well I know the person, but each death matters no matter who dies, or why, or how. It feels sometimes as if people try to build some kind of distance from these deaths, maybe even pick a side, feeling sympathy for one death but not another. I understand the impulse, but I think this too diminishes us. The experience of grief can vary, but it exists nonetheless. We are part of everything that happens, no matter what stories we tell ourselves.

I also find comfort in these dusty readings too:

Do not go gently into that good night by Dylan Thomas.
We may know death is inevitable, but we never have to accept it.

And Thomas’ Fern Hill, expressing joy and sorrow at the speed with which our days fly past.

Screenshot from web zine

Sunlight Press!

I am excited to say that Sunlight Press just published a flash fiction piece I wrote called All-Star. I wrote it many years ago in an online flash fiction workshop taught by Pamelyn Casto. Funny, or perhaps typical story: I wrote it based on a starting line provided by a writing contest, but when I workshopped the story with the group, they liked everything except the starting line, so I cut the first line and never submitted it to the contest.

If you are curious, you can read my short short at this link: https://www.thesunlightpress.com/2019/10/30/all-star/

Sunlight Press is a lovely online magazine, so I encourage you to check it out in general. I have enjoyed the stories and poetry I’ve read on there, and I know some of you may want to consider submitting your writing to them, too. Give it a peek: https://www.thesunlightpress.com

I actually found out about this online literary magazine from Pamelyn Casto’s helpful newsletter on flash fiction markets. She’s switching systems from the apparently vanishing yahoo groups, but once she has her new system set, I’ll share that information here in case you’re interested in signing up for it.

1619 Project: Final articles

With this post, I bring to a close my endeavor to read, reflect, and spotlight the articles of the 1619 Project. There are several final essays worth reading:

One of the final essays, “Their Ancestors Were enslaved by Law. Now They’re Lawyers,” is a photo essay that focuses on several graduates of Howard University’s Law School and their family’s connection to slavery, a moving testimony and a way to celebrate some hard-earned triumphs. Photos are by Djeneba Aduayom, and text is written by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Wadzanai Mhute.

 

 

 

Another article by Logia Gyarke reports on the making of this issue of the New York Times Magazine, including the fact that the print copies sold out. Gyarke interviews Nikole Hannah-Jones, who led the effort.

 

And there is a lively essay by Kurt Streeter entitled “Is Slavery’s Legacy in the Power Dynamics of Sports?” He explores the possibility that this history relates to the NBA, and all of sports, and how fraught it is to refer to anyone as the “owner” of a sports team.

 

 

I have many thoughts percolating thanks to this series, which I may share in later posts. For now, let me state how grateful I am to the writers and editors who made this project possible.

1619 Project: Elliott & Hughes

In another post, I spotlight Nikita Stewart’s concern that our schools are not teaching the history of slavery adequately or appropriately. One resource that might help is provided by Mary Elliott and Jazmine Hughes, entitled: “Four hundred years after enslaved Africans were first brought to Virginia, most Americans still don’t know the full story of slavery.”

While Stewart’s article discusses the challenge and gaps in our teaching, this report is primarily a resource, moving through a chronology of events and images of artifacts, perhaps not surprising since one of the authors is curator of American slavery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

It is worth bookmarking this resource. If you teach or have children, this would be a resource to read and discuss with them.

Rather than quoting lines from this brief history, I just appreciate the multiple examples of “Continual Resistance” that have to be part of our understanding of the history of slavery. I especially valued two stories that were unfamiliar to me– that of Elizabeth Freeman better known as Mum Bett and that of Queen Njinga. I have added them to my list of sheroes.

One other note: I mentioned earlier that I am appreciative to lessons in how to use language to talk about these topics. In this article, I saw the phrase enslaved people used rather than slave, and enslaver rather than slave owner. I am guessing that may be preferred language, which makes a lot of sense.