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.


Notes on Old Postcards: From Salina, Kansas

[Addressed to Mrs. K.A. Roome, 192 Claremont Ave, Montclair, New Jersey]


Aug. 18, 1929

Sunday 8:30 PM

Dearest Folks,

Here we are at this hotel. [Warren Hotel, on reverse.] Very comfortable and all O.K. Had a long ride of 260 miles today over prairie land & it was hot & dusty but it is cool now & I’m sure we’ll sleep well & be ready for another ride tomorrow. We surely are seeing a lot of interesting things & I’ll tell you all about them. Love from all, George & Lillian

[Picture to come when I figure out how to work my scanner.]

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.

Favorite Poems for a Crappy Day: “The World Is Too Much With Us” (William Wordsworth, 1806)

All through my sophomore year in college, I had a typed version of this poem taped to my dorm room wall, along with a passage from Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones. Not sure why I stopped taping poems to walls. Maybe it’s because I don’t own a working typewriter anymore.

THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
          Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
          Little we see in Nature that is ours;
          We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
          The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
          The winds that will be howling at all hours,
          And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
          For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
          It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
          A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;                         10
          So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
          Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
          Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
          Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Yet Another Non-Update on Jan Hooks

So my little blog has been experiencing yet another spike of interest from the outside world. I’m guessing it’s because of the big SNL reunion show, which earned super-high ratings for NBC, despite the station’s usual status as the lovable loser of broadcast TV. People (apparently) are checking in to see if anyone’s posted any newsworthy tidbits about the late comedienne. And once again, I’m hear to tell ya: there’s nothing. No further comments from the family, no intrepid young journalists publishing a big exposé about Hooks’s final years. I wonder if someone out there is trying to dig up some more information. Honestly, I can’t imagine why there wouldn’t be interest. An incredibly talented TV star who fades early and dies young–that seems like a story to me, even though I’m not a journalist and, in fact, am just basing this opinion on what I like to read. There’s always been something compelling to me about life lived in the margins.

I realize that calling Hooks’s life “marginal” is probably a misuse of the term. There are, in fact, people out there who are not actors or comediennes, people who are forced to the edges of society (whether because of their bodies, their beliefs, their gender, or their lack of resources) and people whose entire cultures thrive on the “margins” of the world (even if those so-called margins take up entire continents’ worth of land). I’m not trying to devalue any of these people–I’d love it if we had more input from everywhere, especially our planet’s many overlooked spaces, where so much living and dying happen. I’m also not trying to redefine marginality as worthy of note only if you’re lucky enough to exist right outside the shadow of greatness–in the Brooklyn beside Manhattan’s promised land. Absolutely not. But I also opened this can of worms on my blog, and Hooks does still fascinate me as a woman of SNL (a major marginal space at least in the demographic landscape of this particular TV show) and as someone who worked hard to get something only to have it mysteriously evaporate at the end of her life. I’m a born-and-bred meritocrat, educated in the Cinderella story of the American middle class, and when a person gets her due and then loses it, I want to know what happened.

I know, too, that the story I’ve outlined here (the pull-up-your-bootstraps rise to prominence and tragic fall from grace) may not be Hooks’s story. I may be projecting. I do that a lot. But I can’t say if I’m right or wrong because there’s nothing out there to be found. Gaps in the record fascinate me, too. Derrida’s aporia, the lacunae in memory–holes in the knowledge base, especially in the age of Google, don’t seem like they should exist.

Since I’m a sickly middle-aged wife and mother and not a budding journalist, I’m not going to search out the story of Jan Hooks. I’m going to sit here in my little wifi-connected bubble and wait for someone else (probably a milennial) to do that. But I will leave all you Fickle Readers out there with a few items to temporarily patch up those knowledge gaps until the youngsters come along: one, a tribute to Hooks published by Sarah Larson in The New Yorker, which has some nice analysis and links to sketches; two, this New York Magazine article (found by an intrepid anonymous tipster!) that mentions Hooks and her smoking habit; three, this interview with early 90s SNL alum Melanie Hutsell, which doesn’t have much to do with Hooks but does discuss Hutsell’s iconic Jan Brady impersonation and her fans in the gay community. Enjoy!

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!

Fickle as a Simile

From A Dictionary of Similes, compiled by Frank J. Wilstach, 1916. Not sure if my favorite is one by Scott or Holmes. (Okay, the Beaumont and Fletcher is good, too.)

Fickle as friends.


Fickle as the lightning.


Fickle as the weather.


Fickle as love.

–Honore de Balzac

Fickle as the flying air.

–Beaumont and Fletcher

Fickle…as the winds.

–Aphra Behn

Fickle as a feather.

–Alexander Brome

Fickle as the sea.

–William Cullen Bryant

Fickle and bright as a fairy throng.

–Eliza Cook

Fickle as the sky.

–James Graeme

Fickle as a female in hysterics.

 –Oliver Wendell Holmes

Fickle as the flood.

–William King

Fickle as the breezes blow.

–Joseph B. Ladd

Fickle as a changeful dream.

–Walter Scott

Good Multimedia Break: Wonder Woman Edition

You know, there’s a lot of good writing out there. So much, in fact, that often as a reader I feel inundated. Long ago I’ve given up catching up in the writing world (okay, I have a twinge of jealousy every now and again, but then my body craps out on me and I sleep for three days). But reading, hey–I can do that with hardly any effort, right?

Hah! says the Internet. Hahahahahahaha–I think I just peed my Virtual Pants a little bit. And we’re not even talking about the laff riot that printed books, ebooks, and Amazon are having, individually and as a loosely affiliated media conglomerate.

Okay, so reading all the good stuff out there is Nigh Unto Impossible, probably even more Nigh than keeping up with the accomplishments of writers that clamber like ants all over the face of the world. Every once in a while, though, you do get to read a piece that is mind-blowing (in a humbling sense, not in the typical Internet content-mill sense of “40 Ways Toasting Bread Will Blow Your Mind). These are works that not only open eyes but crack open the universe. And, I’m pleased to report, that today’s stunning piece of writing takes as its subject that most dreadfully neglected of superheroes, Wonder Woman.

Now, I gotta admit, I myself have been a tad irked by Wonder Woman in the past. I grew up in the 1970s watching Lynda Carter play Wonder Woman on TV, and I loved her, loved Diana, loved dressing up in my Wonder Woman Underoos with a piece of sparkly rope and a Burger King cardstock crown that my mom cut up to resemble Wonder Woman’s tiara. (Yes, I have pictures of me in my Wonder Woman “costume.” No, you can’t see them.) I loved Wonder Woman with the innocent narcissism of a little middle-class white girl who looked at Carter and thought, “Yes! The only girl superhero on TV isn’t a blonde! Brown hair rules!!!” And yet later, when I started understanding a little more about the way women are portrayed in the media, and I took a closer look at Wonder Woman’s magic jewelry, skimpy outfit, truth lasso (the hell??), and crummy villains made for a “girl” to fight (yeah, that Egg Fu, what man apart from all of them could crack him open), I became, shall we say, disenchanted with the crime fighter from Paradise Island. She became an embarrassment, yet another vision of the perfect woman created by men, a cause of that queasy feeling you only get in the presence of something once adored by a younger, half-rejected version of yourself.

I will also admit that recently I’ve been coming to terms with my feelings for Wonder Woman. A terrific geek-girl band (yes, world, geek girls DO exist!!!) called the Doubleclicks came out with a tribute song called “Wonder” that always brings a tear to my eye, so perfectly does the song capture the superhero sentimentality that Five for Fighting and Crash Test Dummies, among others, gave to Superman.

And now, we have Jill Lepore’s article “The Last Amazon”.

Man, does this piece of reporting deliver.

Not only does Lepore examine Wonder Woman’s unusual beginnings in the mind of a polyamorous, women’s-rights-espousing male psychologist in the 1940s, not only does Lepore follow the line of inspiration back to famous first-wave feminists like Margaret Sanger, Lepore manages to work in little nuggets of pure-gold irony like this:

Last December, Warner Bros. announced that Wonder Woman would have a role in an upcoming Superman-and-Batman film, and that, in a three-movie deal, Gal Gadot, a lithe Israeli model, had signed on to play the part. There followed a flurry of comments about her anatomical insufficiency for the role.

“It’s been said that you’re too skinny,” an interviewer told Gadot on Israeli television. “Wonder Woman is large-breasted.”

“Wonder Woman is Amazonian,” Gadot said, smiling coyly. “And historically accurate Amazonian women actually had only one breast.” (They cut off the other one, the better to wield a bow.)

And this:

The modern woman, Crystal Eastman explained in The Nation, “wants some means of self-expression, perhaps, some way of satisfying her personal ambitions. But she wants a husband, home and children, too. How to reconcile these two desires in real life, that is the question.” You can find more or less the very same article in almost any magazine today—think of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”—which is a measure of just how poorly this question has been addressed. A century ago, though, it was new. Between 1910 and 1920, Virginia MacMakin Collier reported in 1926, in “Marriage and Careers,” the percentage of married women working had nearly doubled, and the number of married women in the professions had risen by forty per cent. “The question, therefore, is no longer, should women combine marriage with careers, but how?”

Here’s how. Marston [Wonder Woman’s creator] would have two wives. Holloway could have her career. Byrne would raise the children. No one else need ever know.

And this:

In the spring of 1942, Gaines [publisher of Wonder Woman] included a one-page questionnaire in All-Star Comics. “Should WONDER WOMAN be allowed, even though a woman, to become a member of the Justice Society?” Of the first eighteen hundred and one questionnaires returned, twelve hundred and sixty-five boys and three hundred and thirty-three girls said yes; a hundred and ninety-seven boys, and just six girls, said no. Wonder Woman joined the Justice Society. She was the only woman. Gardner Fox, who wrote the Justice Society stories, made her the society’s secretary. In the summer of 1942, when all the male superheroes head off to war, Wonder Woman stays behind to answer the mail. “Good luck boys,” she calls out to them. “I wish I could be going with you!” Marston was furious.

And, oh, yeah, this:

Marston died in 1947. “Hire me,” Holloway [Marston’s official wife] wrote to DC Comics. Instead, DC hired Robert Kanigher, and Wonder Woman followed the hundreds of thousands of American women workers who, when peace came, were told that their labor threatened the stability of the nation. Kanigher made Wonder Woman a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star. She gave advice to the lovelorn, as the author of a lonely-hearts newspaper advice column. Her new writer also abandoned a regular feature, “The Wonder Women of History”—a four-page centerfold in every issue, containing a biography of a woman of achievement. He replaced it with a series about weddings, called “Marriage à la Mode.”

“The Last Amazon” is a long article, but an important one. Read it before the Subscription techies at the New Yorker stuff it behind a firewall. Afterward, feel free to get all nostalgic for the gains in women’s lives that were dreamed of but never happened, or that happened but didn’t stick. Then listen to the Doubleclicks and remember to hang on to a little of that queasy, kid-like hope, that awe for the marvelous being who, every once in a while, resembles you.

Post-Vegas Catch-Up: News Poetry Edition

Hey, Fickle Readers! I’m back from Vegas, where my oldest and dearest friend Donnabella Valentino and I had an amazing couple of days of eating, gambling, listening to the Beatles, and watching sprays of water dance to cheesy melodies. (You wouldn’t think water would be capable of acting cheesy, but then, Vegas can bring out the cheesetacularness in any given molecular construction.)

But, since all good things must end with a long, cramped flight across the country, I’m back in the ‘burbs and ready to start churning out random, fickle thoughts, such that my presence will be noted by even more bots ready to fill my spam comment filter with long strings of unconnected words and generic praise.

Today’s first spam-catching post is on the subject of news poetry, or “opinion poetry,” as the L.A. Times calls it. Yes, because I stopped paying attention, and because my short-term memory has dwindled to maybe ten minutes, I managed to miss the publication of the official 2014 L.A. Times Opinion Poetry page. Definitely worth checking out, if only to see what material the Times’ editors chose.* There’s a good balance struck here between professional and amateur writers (although the professionals don’t have a monopoly on the most notable pieces) and between comic and serious verse. Topics are varied, yet most seem not to refer to a specific event but to an overall problem (see “Re-Divining Water” by Fran Davis and “Modern Love Incorporated” by Mike Orlock**) or even to a larger social or political issue that impacts private life (“Facial Heritage” by Elmast Kozloyan, “Sometimes the Urge to Live” by Aliki Barstone, “Veterans’ Benefits” by Brad Rose). Lots and lots of rhyming here, too, which is kinda nice to see–a throwback to the witty epigrams of eighteenth-century periodicals. Not everyone quite nails the forms (there are two “sonnets” in the Times that are not sonnets in the traditional sense), but the poems themselves are interesting and worthwhile. (Peter Larson, by the way, wins the Miss Fickle Form prize for his meticulously metrical poem “Please Pass the Mud.”) Other standouts include “Bridge Over a Bone River” by Lollie Butler and “The Sunflower” by Pam Ward, both longer works and both extremely powerful.

The one criticism I have of this year’s poetry page has to do with layout: namely, whoever transferred the poems to the web site neglected to include any structural details, not even stanza breaks. This means that the entire group of poems reads like one continuous column down the left side of the screen. Come on, L.A. newspeople: you know the importance of the way text looks on a page. Poets put spaces and gaps in their work for a reason. Please don’t ignore them. Otherwise, this is another good showing from the Times opinion editors. Nicely done, folks! Hope you decide to do this again next year!

In other news, news itself is the topic of a weekly feature on the Rattle magazine web site. Called “Poets Respond,” this project is an experiment to see if timely poetry–work written within a week about an event that occurred during that week–can participate in the lightning-quick conversations spawned in the 21st-century 24-hour media merry-go-round. You’ll recall that I mentioned this new poetry series in a round-up of poetry-related announcements last week. You may also recall, a few months back, I criticized Seth Abramson for writing a prose poem about Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista rampage killer, and how immediately after the event might not be the appropriate moment to start exploring the humanity of a man who’d just shot nineteen people, six of whom died. “This is probably why poets don’t make good first responders,” I wrote at the time. Now, Rattle gives us the opportunity to see if poets can remake themselves into first responders, or, at the very least, as witnesses with valuable perspectives that can’t be conveyed in other forms of writing.

Now that I’ve finally had the chance to see Poets Respond, my report on the viability of news poetry is: so far, so good. Even though these poems are inspired by specific events, as with the L.A. Times poetry page the work on Poets Respond injects public discourse with a sense of the private, interior reactions we almost never get to see. The presentation of the work is gorgeous, with an easily navigable index page and audio files of readings for almost every piece.  As far as the individual poems go, all are high on accessibility without sacrificing craft. I love Lynne Knight’s beautiful, understated pantoum “The Letter from James Foley,” Rebecca Schumejda’s exploration of her inability to explain painful events to her daughter in “Black Banana,” and Jason McCall’s absolutely gut-wrenching tribute poem “Roll Call for Michael Brown.” Overall, Rattle has a great thing going here, and I, for one, hope they continue this project well into the future.

*For the sake of full disclosure: yes, I had a poem chosen this year, and no, it’s not one of the ones I discuss in this post. I’m not in the habit of sockpuppet-reviewing my own work, not only because it’s unethical but also (and maybe more so) because I wouldn’t want to go anonymously patting myself on the back and have my readers say, “Why is Miss Fickle crowing about such a crap poem?”

**Orlock also wins points for these lines about corporations: “For they, my boy, make no mistake / are fickle as young girls. / They need our constant blandishments, / tax breaks instead of pearls.”