Miss Fickle Critic: On Goodreads and in Hippocampus Magazine

Hey, Fickle Readers! It’s time for some blatant self-promotion! Those of you not among my personal cadre (and therefore not privy to my various lunatic rantings and blatherings) may not realize that I’m not only a creative writer, I’m also (surprise!) a budding book critic. I’ve just signed up for another year of reviewing at Hippocampus Magazine, an excellent all-creative nonfiction online journal. I’m also determined to write up more of my glorious opinions on Goodreads, because I really really want to keep getting free books to review. Really.

So here’s the latest on my fickle reading adventures:

One book you should definitely read, especially if you’re into creative nonfiction of the most intense, transformative kind, is Cynthia Barnett’s Rain: A Natural and Cultural History.

This is what the cover looks like. Go read this book immediately.

This is a book that steals into your life with a simple premise that, you soon realize, has gigantic, perspective-changing implications. Also, the title was long-listed for the National Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. Tragically, it didn’t move on in the process, even though I wish it had. (Admittedly, the field was probably more competitive than usual this year. Hard to beat Ta-Nehisi Coates.)

Despite the awards game, though, this is book is worth every minute you spend with it. Go forth and read.

I wish I could say the same for Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time. Vintage Books has commissioned a whole bunch of high-profile authors to write novel adaptations of Shakespeare plays (it’s called the Hogarth Shakespeare Initiative, in case you’re interested). When I heard about the project, I was so thoroughly excited I signed right up to get an actual physical review copy of the book and I GOT ONE, sent to my actual real-life address. I felt so validated I just sat around appreciating the cover for a while.

And, yeah, it’s a pretty cool cover.

Much to my dismay, the book itself isn’t all that great. Granted, you may have to take my opinion with a grain of salt, since I have sunk a lot of time and energy into studying The Winter’s Tale, on which Winterson based her novel. And granted, it would probably give someone with little to no familiarity with the play a pretty solid introduction to the original. The problem is, if that uninitiated person ever got to read or see The Winter’s Tale, he or she would probably be ready to set the bear on Leontes right from the beginning. Because Winterson’s Leo is just that awful. He’s vicious, self-centered, and whiny and deserves none of Shakespeare’s (or anyone’s) much-vaunted forgiveness, which the original play is also known for. If you’re curious, I’d say get this book out of the library. Otherwise, wait for Margaret Atwood to write her adaptation of The Tempest.


10-Minute Meditations: Getting Rid of Books

Today my friend–let’s call him Wikipedia Brown–and I sorted all of my old books into a pile to get rid of. And oh, what a tremendous pile it is. About 90% of the volumes I scrounged and scurried to get for my dissertation, both for my comprehensive exams (two reading lists that were required to contain about 100 titles apiece) and for my ill-fated dissertation. My exams I passed (although not without controversy). My dissertation I never finished.

These were books I desperately wanted to obtain, books that made me feel like a queen when I found them. I luxuriated in their bulk of pages, material unread and undiscovered, soon to go straight into my brain and make me–what? I have no idea now. I think when I went into the PhD program, I mistook being an information hoarder for being a scholar. Or maybe being a narcissist for being a researcher. Because now that those books no longer serve a purpose (most of my primary sources long ago passed into the public domain, and nowadays that means I can get them for free, chock-full of typos and bad formatting but instantly accessible nonetheless), I couldn’t be happier to throw them in a giant pile and cart them out of my house. One time I thought I might do something creative with them, like write found poetry from each book that was meaningful to me in my program. Then as I looked at each title, I realized how nonessential most of these volumes were to my life.

I have no idea how I could have thought I wanted that PhD. I have no idea how I worked on it for twelve years.

Shakespeare Is Everywhere: The Bard vs The Beach

This comes from a book Little Fickle has been reading: Mr. Sunny Is Funny!, by Dan Gutman. Note how Shakespeare is defined as the antithesis of everything fun about summer vacation:

That Shakespeare guy made no sense at all. The question isn’t to be or not to be. I’ll tell you what the question is. Do you want ice cream or cake? That is the question. Trick biking or skateboarding? That is the question. TV or video games? That is the question. Would it be better if a piano or an elephant fell on Andrea’s head? That is the question.

Andrea lined up her dumb books on a shelf in ABC order.

“Hey, maybe we can read together on the beach, Arlo!” Andrea said. “What did you bring for summer reading?”

Summer reading?! What is her problem? “Summer” and “reading” are two words that should never be put together in the same sentence. The only reading I brought was a comic book that I finished in the car. It was about a superhero named Mold Man who can turn his body into any shape. He’s cool. I bet Mold Man would kick Shakespeare’s butt.

Harper Lee Publishes a Second Novel, and the Literary World Explodes

Like me, perhaps, you woke up this morning to discover that 55 years after she published To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee is coming out with a second novel. Like me, you may also have been leaping out of your chair and thinking what a miracle it is that an 88-year-old woman finally decided to give fiction a second try. Eighty-eight years old! Harper Lee, you rock my world, I thought to myself after the chair hit the floor.

Well, the real story isn’t quite as awesome as that second-blooming-late-in-life tale that I made up for myself. But it is, indeed, worth everyone’s amazement at how sometimes without warning, the God of Stories delivers a treasure to the world. As you may or may not know, Lee only ever wrote one novel. This soon-to-be-published new work, Go Set a Watchman, is actually an old work: it was her first attempt at a novel, and it was about a woman named Jean Louise Finch going back to her hometown to visit her father. Apparently, the editor liked the flashback material so much, he (and I’m assuming it was a he–maybe not, though) encouraged Lee to base a different novel on Jean Louise’s childhood. That story became To Kill a Mockingbird; Jean Louise Finch became Scout, and her father became Atticus Finch, the attorney who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman.

It’s hard to say whether or not Go Set a Watchman will be as good as To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, what the hell am I saying? Chances are infintesimal that anyone on the planet will believe that this new work–the actual first novel written by Harper Lee–will even approach the greatness of the novel that made it to publication. The Internet will give birth to a bunch of naysayers and reputation-chewers who will whine and complain about why anyone bothered to publish this book in the first place. (Or so I predict, as anyone else might predict given the nature of the Internet.) I’m hoping, though, that the Internet opinion-setters in particular will accept this book for what it is: an experiment, as all novels are; a first shot at creating a story; a chance to see how a brilliant author’s mind works as that mind was captured mid-process.

And who knows? This second novel might tell a good story in its own right. But it doesn’t have to. The mythos that we’ve collectively created around To Kill a Mockingbird, and the way that the book changed our culture, has already made the book valuable to us, no matter how it turns out. So, I guess what I’m saying is, screw you, future Internet trolls! Whatever problems Go Set a Watchman  may have (and I’m not saying it won’t, and I’m not saying it’s bad to bring up valid criticisms if and when they’re found), this book will still be important and Harper Lee will still be one of my all-time literary heroes.


New Fickleness for a New Year!

Hey, all you Fickle Readers out there! Happy New…er…February! A couple of days early!

I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath to see what new features my blog has to offer for 2015. Or maybe you were waiting to see if I was going to do anything coherent at all, besides posting random crap about Shakespeare, writing, current events, web stuff, and seemingly anything else that passes before my eyes.

Well, wait no longer! I, Miss Fickle Reader, am proud to announce that I have officially changed the name of my blog! Yes, indeed–careful readers will now note that the title is no longer the eponymous “Miss Fickle Reader” but the more descriptive “Miss Fickle Reader’s Commonplace Blog.” This new moniker is not a concession to anyone who things my blog is ordinary, dull, or easy to overlook (although it may be all three of those things). In fact, what I’m referencing here is the idea of the Renaissance commonplace book, a blank book in which literate men and women (mostly men) would jot down a collection of ideas, quotes, and information in one big jumble that they could take with them and share with friends. Sort of like Pinterest on paper. For a while now, I’ve been wondering how I could re-shape this blog into something a wee bit more focused. Finally, I realized the problem was with concept and not content. I love gathering ideas in jumbles. I love finding associations in things I wouldn’t have guessed were related. Hence the new name and new freedom to jot down things on instinct rather than to a plan. (That rarely works for me. I’m an absolute adolescent when it comes to doing stuff I feel like have to do.)

In a related note, I’m going to try to write smaller, more meditative posts on a more regular basis. I’m determined to do this because my good friend and fellow poet and essay writer (also former poetry editor of Mid-American Review) Karen Craigo has a new blog, Better View of the Moon, on which she posts every day, despite anything else that’s going on in her life. Her work is gorgeous, and the project inspiring. I want to try to be as dedicated–not to mention as flat-out great–as Karen. So I’m going to try harder to overcome my short attention span and wordlessness (those moments when I don’t have the energy or the focus to put words together) to get more out on the page.

The third thing–and, yes, this has been a slight distraction in my life recently–is that I’ve started doing book reviews! I now officially have a Goodreads page as well as a new, experimental site I like to call Miss Fickle Reader’s Roster of Unfinished Books.  In accordance with the Precious Seconds Rule (which, in case you need a refresher, is discussed here and here), I intend to write accounts of what happened that made me stop reading a book. These are NOT meant as reasons not to read the book (at least not necessarily). Much of the impulse to keep reading or stop reading has to do with the reader herself. The idea behind the roster is, instead, to see what takes readers out of a story, what sorts of issues trigger reader stoppage, etc. The whole thing may turn out only to be a tool for writers who are revising longer works. Hopefully, it won’t turn into a vehicle for raining author anger on my head.

So that’s the news from here in Fickleland. Now I have to go tend to Little Fickle, who came home sick from school. (He’s not terribly sick–naturally, he has enough energy to watch TV and play video games.) Cheers for now!

Shakespeare Is Everywhere: “Shakespeare’s Christmas”

Yes, this is a real story, and no it’s not a joke (at least it doesn’t read that way). This title piece in a short-story collection by writer and literary critic Arthur Quiller-Couch (who wrote under the pseudonym–get ready for it–“Q”) is in fact a bizarre yet clever mashup of Shakespearean narrative and mythology. On the surface, Quiller-Couch is fictionalizing the night that Richard Burbage and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, unbeknownst to their landlord, took apart The Theatre and transported the lumber to a storage facility near the Thames, where those same building materials would eventually be used to construct the Globe. Sort of a bizarre moment in Shakespearean history in and of itself, but it did happen on December 28, 1599 (not on Christmas eve, which is when Quiller-Couch’s tale is set). On another level, however, the story is a retelling of Henry IV, Part Two, with Shakespeare as Prince Hal and John Shakespeare, William’s father, as Falstaff.

To be honest, I have yet to wrap my brain around this piece, so I have to offer it up to you Fickle Readers in its pure and unanalyzed state. The story is ripe for criticism, though. I invite you to have at it, and if you have any cool observations, please share.

Merry happy, everyone!

Grief (and its Witnesses) Can Be Fickle, Too

Grief, it turns out, is not only a cruel muse.  She’s a fickle one as well.

–Bill Morris, “Grief, the Cruel and Fickle Muse

The essay that this quote is taken from was published in The Millions in 2011. It’s an odd piece, though, in that what author Bill Morris says he’s writing about seems to be at odds with what he’s actually writing about. He points to a budding grief market marked by the publication of several “grief memoirs,” particularly those about writers who have lost a spouse. Soon, however, he’s off reviewing three different lost-spouse works (published in 2011, 2007, and 1989 [???], respectively) as proof that lies by omission will help sink an account of grief, while full disclosure will buoy a work to the heights of literary greatness. After that are the three reviews–in sunk-masterpiece-sunk order–and in reading them, you start wondering if in fact what’s really bothering Morris is that two writers (the sunk ones) made new lives with other partners and neglected to tell their readers. All in all, Morris’s essay is a well-written and readable one, but it leaves me scratching my head. Another case of a writer ending where he should have begun?

Things I’m Going to Hell For: Writing This Poem About Adam Mansbach

Wow, look at that! My 1ooth post, and it’s devoted to the output of my hardened, bitter soul. What a stunner!

But I digress: you may not know the name Adam Mansbach, but you surely will recall the sensation he created with his “kids” book, Go the Fuck to Sleep (listed here on Amazon, where you can see the cover design’s clever concealment of a naughty, naughty word in the title).

Now, you may think that I might object to this book because of the fact that a) I didn’t write it, and b) it went on to sell a gajillion copies and has probably now been translated into 117 different languages, including Danish, Tamil, and ancient Etruscan. Of course, you’d be right on both counts. You may also guess that I’m especially put out by the fact that this book was written in verse (in other words, poetry) by a well-known, hip-as-can-be fiction writer, who has earned more money and publicity from this single poem than most of the world’s poets will see in several millennia. Right again, Fickle Readers! I’m sour-grapesing this puppy all the way to the bank (or Tin Pan Alley, as it were).


these are not my primary concerns about Mansbach’s book.

No, the thing that really, really, REALLY cheeses me off about this quaint little frustration ballad is that Mansbach DOESN’T WRITE THE FRIGGIN’ THING IN METER.


It’s like he sat at his kitchen table one night, bleary-eyed after getting a mere three hours’ sleep in the last week, and vented his frustration on a scrap of a playfully shredded Trader Joe’s bag. Then, in the morning, he realized he had this Monumental Piece of Literature on his hands, called up his publisher, and shot what he’d written directly into the printer somehow (don’t ask me how; Famous Fiction Writers clearly have some sort of magic publishing mojo going for them) without so much a second glance at the crumpled brown kraft paper he’d scrawled it on.

Here’s one of the more egregious examples of Mansbach’s unmetered meter:

All the nursery kids are in dreamland.
The froggie has made his last leap.
Hell no, you can’t go to the bathroom.
You know where you can go? The fuck to sleep.

But wait (you might say): isn’t that the whole point of the book? That the dad is getting so frustrated he can’t hold it together anymore? Isn’t the breakdown of the meter in the book (that is, the fact that the number of syllables and the pattern of stresses don’t match from line to line) evocative of his mental disintegration at the hands of his innocent-yet-unknowingly-sadistic toddler?

To that I would respond: nope. Sorry. Novelists don’t get to write sloppy poetry and call it an aesthetic choice. Not when impoverished poets spend years and years slaving away in their squalid hovels so that they can lay down a sweet villanelle while they’re slurping up their beef jerky ramen.

As an Unknown Writer who’s devoted large chunks of her life to writing non-bestselling poetry, I still managed to write the poem below in about half an hour. It is an example of a little something called Regular Meter. Does it scan? You bet your ass it does. That’s because I didn’t devote my youth writing award-winning prose. I lived my iambic pentameter, goddammit.

For the record, my evil-hearted poem was written when Mansbach’s (how do I abbreviate the title? Fuck?) when Mansbach’s Fuck was published in 2011. Tonight, I just learned that the author has a new book forthcoming, a sequel called You Have to Fucking Eat. So we’ll see what Mansbach has learned about formal versifying in the past three years. My guess: not much.

You know how to write in meter, Mr. Mansbach? Prove it.

(Also, my kid is six and voluntarily eats broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, and three different colors of bell pepper. In your face, Famous Rock-Star Writer!)


To Adam Mansbach


So, your new book is pretty neat.

You know what would be neater?

If well-established novelists

Would learn to write in meter.


We poets are a surly bunch

And nothing makes us teeter

Upon the brink of madness more

Than lines of hacked-up meter.


Exhaustion likely made you want

To find a muse and greet her

With words that shriek your pain.  Too bad

She can’t hear crappy meter.


Of course, there are rules you can break—

God knows we’ve all been cheaters.

But first, you really ought to learn

The rules of rhyme and meter.


So please, for all us underpaid

Poetic scribes and readers,

Next time you write a cute kids’ book,

DO write the fuck in meter.



Katherine Mansfield and the Fickle Critic

She who begins as a Genius must never be allowed to outshine Chekhov…

Of course Miss Mansfield has been compared to Tchehov. There is a story of his, “The Party,” with much of the same situation as Miss Mansfield’s “The Garden Party”; and like it, a story of surcharged fickle emotional weather.

–Robert Littell, Review of Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories, July 5, 1922