Thursday, April 29, 2021

I recommend the FALLING WOMAN, coming in paperback! It's got airplanes! A crash! A mystery! A stunning debut from Richard Farrell


" A skillfully written story of hope, love, and regret” (Library Journal)

“[A] mind-rattling debut mystery… Page after page, Farrell builds confusion and frustration into an incendiary debate between belief in the miraculous and the basic laws of physics… When he finally discovers the truth, what Charlie does with it will make for an explosive discussion long after the final chapter.”

— Shelf Awareness



If you're like me, airplanes terrifying you. You have talismans and you do a whole lot of magic thinking. But if you're also like me, you feel the need to habituate yourself to the fear and turn it into exhilaration. That's the way I felt reading Richard Farrell's astonishing debut, THE FALLING WOMAN, which I think you should pre-order right away. It's coming in paperback from Algonquin Books in May! And that is SOON!

What if you were the sole survivor of a terrible plane crash? And what if you became a media sensation and then you vanished? Only one man knows the truth of your story--and how it could destroy you.

Come on, you know you are dying to read this, right?


Wednesday, April 28, 2021

How do we get over abuse? Jeannine Ouelette talks about THE PART THAT BURNS (great title, right?), listening to your body, writing and so much more.


 First take a look at these knockout blurbs!

Simply beautiful … precisely imagined, poetically structured, compelling, and vivid. —Joyce Carol Oates

I love this book and am grateful it is in the world.—Dorothy Allison

 Jeannine Ouellette is the author of the memoir The Part That Burns (Split/Lip Press, 2021), the children’s book Mama Moon, and several educational titles. Her stories and essays have appeared widely, and her work has been supported with fellowships from Millay Colony for the Arts and Brush Creek Foundation. She is the recipient of a Margarita Donnelly Prize, Curt Johnson Fiction Award, Proximity Essay Award, Masters Review Emerging Writer's Award, two recent Pushcart nominations, as well as awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Medill School of Journalism. She's working on her first novel--and we cannot wait! Thank you for being here Jeannine!


I always want to know what was haunting a writer into writing a particular book right now.


I was haunted—and I love that idea of being haunted by a book, because haunting is powerful concept, one I believe in on multiple levels—but, yes, I was haunted into writing this book. I was haunted by memories of sagebrush and tumbleweeds, hours alone in the shadow of the foothills of Casper Mountain. Haunted, too, by the hours I spent by myself in the almost two dozen houses and apartments I grew up in, including foster homes. I was haunted by my past selves, the little girl with the greasy hair hiding under the lilac bush and waiting for its branches to open up into some new version of Narnia, just for me. Haunted by the basements I slept in, and the friends I lied to. Haunted by choices I made because I didn’t know there were other choices. Haunted, maybe most of all, by the person I was when I first became a mother at age 22, which indeed was like stumbling into some new Narnia, one just as magical but also as dangerous as the one C.S. Lewis imagined so vividly all those years ago.

This book has haunted me since I was a teenager—and I am 53 now. By age twenty, I was writing about this book in my journal, saying, “I don't feel like I am saying what I am trying to say. How can that be? I don't know. I do think I am about ready to write my book, but I can't find the right place to begin.” That makes sense now, of course, that I couldn’t find the right place to begin—how could I have? It’s too awful, really, to think about a grown man, one placed in a position of trust—I’m referring to my stepfather, Mafia—molesting me as a four-year-old child, then continuing that molestation for years. When I was a new adult, finally free—or, so I thought—what I wanted was to convey the enormity of this terrible injustice, this primal wound. But I had neither the life experience nor the skills to convey it effectively.

In my twenties and thirties, I was still very much in the middle of it, even though my stepfather had disappeared from the picture years ago by then, having left when I was ten. But the things he did to me (and his abuse of my mother, too, and her subsequent breakdowns) cast a long shadow. I couldn’t write this book until I had made sense of my own story, and that didn’t happen until enough of it was behind me. I had to have some perspective in order to synthesize real meaning from the things I experienced, and the person I became as a result of those experiences. That process of synthesis, that window into meaning, started opening for me in my early forties, after I’d been safely in my second marriage for a decade. From there, it took yet another decade to see the book into print. And what a relief that has been. It’s not that my stepfather’s abuse was a secret—I have not hidden his pedophilia for a very long time.

That’s a shame I have long refused to carry for him. But, confiding in people close to me is not the same as sending a whole book out into the wide world for anyone to see. A book represents real exposure, extreme vulnerability. I was caught off guard by tsunami of fear that hit me during the weeks right before and after my pub date. I was a wreck. But, I was also ready on some level to simply sit with that fear, let the waves pass over me at their own speed, while going about my business and doing what needed to be done, not only in service of the book, but also in service of my life. I expected to come up for air eventually, and I have.



I absolutely love the structure of this book, where brilliant fragments make up a whole. How and why did you decide on this structure and what were the surprises of writing like this?


I tried so many different structures! And I was told by a few agents that I needed a more traditional narrative arc. Which I eventually tried and failed to execute—it just didn’t work for this book. But I’m fascinated by structure, and ultimately have some qualms with the idea that the traditional narrative arc is the only effective structure for storytelling. The traditional arc is very Western, and very masculine. I love the book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, by Jane Allison. She does a fantastic job of unpacking and challenging some mythology around narrative form. After explaining how the “…arc really is the perfect expression of tragedy as Aristotle saw it,” she reminds us that not all fiction (or, I would add here, creative nonfiction) is tragedy, and she asks why we should therefore insist on the same arc for all stories. Finally, and hilariously, she acknowledges the “irksome sexual aspect” by quoting critic Robert Scholes, who said, “The archetype for all fiction is the sexual act….For what connects all fiction—and music—is the fundamental orgiastic rhythm and tumescence and detumescence, of tension and resolution, of intensification to the point of climax and consummation. In the sophisticated forms of fiction, as in the sophisticated practice of sex, much of the art consists of delaying climax within the framework of desire in order to prolong the pleasurable act itself.” Allison writes, then: “Well. Is this how I experience sex? It is not.” Which made me laugh out loud.

The point being, though, not all stories are best served by the traditional narrative arc. I tried stuffing mine into one—or, more accurately, stretching it out it into one, because the traditionally linear version was fictionalized and almost twice as long—but, as I said, it really didn’t work. The arc diluted its power in a number of important ways. Whereas working with fragments seemed to have an amplifying effect. The fragments reflect and refract off one another. Fragments allowed me to tell and retell the central conflict in ways that mirrored the narrator’s shifting understanding of her own experience in different eras of her life. She is in fact constantly revising her relationship to her past as she becomes both clearer about what was done to her, and more embodied. Embodiment, for her, is a double-edged sword. She wants the right to live in her body, a right that was violated by her stepfather. But in order to live in her body, she has to feel a lot of painful old wounds that have long hummed quietly under a very numbed exterior. It’s a conundrum, and the fragmented form allows that conundrum to unfold organically and elliptically, as it did in real life.


Our society puts so much that is really fable onto motherhood and family. You imagined being a mother might heal the trauma of your past, but instead, it created something very different. Can you talk about this please?


What a fantastic question. I address this tangentially in the second chapter, “Tumbleweeds,” under the last heading, “Mother (Mater)” because this dichotomy of maternal expectation versus reality, which eventually evolved for me into a paradox, was so stark. It was simply crucial for me to reckon with that paradox in order to become a whole human being. And it was paradoxical, because, first and foremost, I loved being a mom of little kids, I loved being home with them, it suited my needs and desires and temperament. I did find it genuinely healing in fundamental ways. This remains true with my grandchildren—being with them, they are three, two, one, and 9 months now—and caring for them and showering them with love has been a balm like none other during this pandemic in terms of heart-healing powers.  But being a very young mother to three children ages five and under was also quite hard, as anyone can imagine it would be. Not only because the processes of pregnancy, natural childbirth, and breastfeeding catapulted me back into my body in ways I could never have foreseen, bringing up all kinds of very painful cellular memories I’d repressed. It was like, once I was in my body again, I couldn’t turn off sensation at will as I’d always been able to do. Suddenly, I had no defense mechanisms for all the sensations I didn’t want—especially sex that didn’t feel good.

Prior to motherhood, I had accepted whatever kind of sex my partner wanted and that was fine, whether I liked it or not. After motherhood, no more. I couldn’t, once I was embodied again, say yes to sex when my body was saying no, no, I don’t like the feeling of this. Suddenly, my own sexual needs, preferences, and desires had to matter, and that was a foreign and frightening new terrain. Also, like all moms, I’d find myself sleep deprived and impatient. I’d find myself crying. In the worst cases, I’d find myself throwing a book or toy, which was how I dealt with overwhelm instead of turning that anger on three little kids. I can count those times on one hand, but, still, they count. To discover that I was not and could never be perfect as a mother was grotesquely painful. Being imperfect as a child or a human was one thing, but being imperfect as a mother felt akin to being a monster. I think that’s reinforced, too, in our patriarchal, misogynist culture, where everything is the mother’s fault. Even some readers of my memoir get angry that the narrator forgives her own mother. I understand that reaction—my mother did some extreme things. Making me sleep in the basement, kicking me out of the family repeatedly. She had a terrible temper and often directed it toward me. But she was a product, too, of systemic inequalities and injustices as well as personal traumas that absolutely contributed to her challenges. I don’t think there’s really been a time when I’ve not wanted to be in a state of forgiveness for my mom—who, by the way, has been quite supportive of this book. But, for my younger self, mourning the futile notion of perfect motherhood was utterly grueling. I bought wholesale into the patriarchal myth of motherhood. One hundred percent.

I had a fairy tale notion about motherhood and family and wanted to believe I could protect my children from all threats—environmental threats, social threats, and, of course, my own imperfections. None of this proved possible. I soon learned that there are microparticles of plastic in our waters, endocrine disrupting chemicals that enter your body through your skin. Even a whole-house water purifier can’t adequately protect us from those chemicals, but that never mattered anyway because we could not have afforded one of those! Besides, there would still be air and food—neither of which are pure. And of course, there was still myself, my grossly imperfect self to contend with. It took a long time to believe that I was good enough. It took even longer to believe—not just know, but truly believe—that being imperfect is not the same as being abusive. Once I started believing and accepting that, I was able to start healing my own trauma, starting with the childhood trauma of sexual abuse. That’s where the paradox comes in. That is, I found it was only though the challenge of accepting and appreciating myself as a mother despite my imperfection that I could begin to also accept and appreciate the other imperfect parts of myself that were broken in childhood. The paradox of motherhood, in that way, really was my doorway to healing—just not the way I had wanted and expected it to be. I thought being a perfect mom would be the healing, when in fact it was the opposite: accepting my inevitable imperfection was the elixir I needed all along, and motherhood catalyzed and supercharged that process—demanded it, in fact.



Oh, and about the cover and the title, both of which I love, love, love. Did you have input in the cover? It's spectacular.


I did! The art came from Kelly Popoff, a painter I was in residence with at Millay Colony during the summer of 2018. Her work is phenomenal. As we became friends during our time together at Millay, we got to know each other’s back stories and the questions and passions we were each exploring—her on the canvas, and me on the page. We found so much resonance in our work in terms of motherhood, family, early wounds, and the long path of becoming. She was the first person I thought of when it came time to talk about covers, and Split/Lip was totally on board with me bringing Kelly in as the artist. She came up with so many sketches and prototypes for cover art! It was an incredible process because for one thing, Kelly is an artist, not an illustrator, so it was very organic and not under my direction, or Split/Lip’s direction. I gave Kelly the manuscript and told her about themes, including the house explosion my mom lived through, among other things, but the images she came up with were so diverse and incredible. I loved so many of them that the process of choosing just one was outrageously difficult. But this really was the one. It captures something in its simplicity. It’s childlike, but also complex. The tape was my idea. I saw a book cover I loved, it was an art book, that used tape in a way somewhat similar to this, but not as messy. The messy version is right for my book, though, in the way it captures, as does the askew house, something essential in this fragmented story. David Wojciechowski, he’s the cover designer, did an incredible job.


And I know titles tend to be marketing decisions, but I saw yours and thought: damn, I wish I had thought of that title!


Thank you! I’m so glad you like it. And the thing is, Split/Lip is quite small, and things work a little differently there as compared to big publishers. In my case, I submitted the manuscript as The Part That Burns after giving an obsessive amount of thought to the title, and they never asked me to consider changing it. Of course, being obsessive, I did consider changing it, anyway. Of course I did. But in the end, I felt it was the right title, because of the way it hits the heart-center of the book, which is to say, the things that hurt us most are also, sometimes, the things that make us the best parts of who we are. I know that in my case I have an extraordinary amount of empathy and compassion grounded in trauma. I don’t think people should have to experience trauma to become exceptionally empathic and compassionate, but trauma can have that effect. For me, it did. I feel, too, that my love of language, my imagination, and my little bit of clairvoyance (which is sometimes quite a lot of clairvoyance) is grounded in those early life experiences that drove me out of my body. I am glad, oh so very glad, to be back in my body now, but had I never left it, I may not have developed these other capacities. I can’t know all of those things, or any of them, with certainty. But I know that when I was working on this project and writing the birth scene about my middle child, my son, and those lines spilled out—I am the part that burns and the part that burns is the part that glows—something just clicked. This is the scene where the narrator is whirling through the painful but hypnotic trance of labor, that tunnel of darkness, realizing that her body is slipping back into her body just as a brand-new human’s body is slipping out of her, and there’s an integration that happens in that moment. That integration is, for me, deeply connected to the heart and soul of this book. Thus, the title!

What’s obsessing you now and why?


I am obsessing hard on my next book, which is fiction, and so fun to be engaged with! It’s completely, wildly, crazily different from my memoir. It takes place in a kind of near future, pre-apocalyptic world in which the population has decreased dramatically and the boundaries between cities and natural areas have degraded significantly, leading humans and animals to have closer and more frequent encounters with one another. In this context, I want to explore questions about love, fear, and even tribalism. I want to explore the thin line between humans and animals in terms of our behavior around both devotion and survival. What I want, in a sense, is to explore the whole idea of our animal natures—humans are animals, of course—and the fragility of our human control, while also looking at the complex interior lives of animals. In other words, where, really, do the boundaries begin and end? I have a loose plot going, but can’t really say more about it, except that there are coyotes, and coyotes and their pack structures are amazing. The smallest amount of research is already blowing my mind.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?


Oh boy, you asked such great questions! So, I would mainly say thank you, thank you, thank you for giving time, space, and attention to my book. It’s a tough, tough road to launch a book during a pandemic. You’ve done so much to help so many writers. The statistics around pandemic books are abysmal, according to a recent write-up in The New York Times. In 2020, a full 98% of books published sold fewer than 5000 copies. And that doesn’t even account for the impact on tiny presses like Split/Lip, where 5000 would be actually be a damn good run. So, you work your whole life on a book, and then have to cast it out to sea in this kind of storm, where it’s just going to get tossed around on the waves for about three and a half minutes before sinking forever. That’s the sad story for small and tiny presses along with independent bookstores, all of which suffered especially hard last year, to the point where most indie bookstores simply lost money. A lot of people are worried about the future of independent publishing and what will happen to the diversity of voices and stories that indie presses and bookstores support. In the end, it’s huge—it’s immeasurably valuable—that literary champions like you make space for smaller books from smaller presses in this dismal publishing landscape. I personally have a lot of catching up to do in terms of how to be an incredible literary citizen who boosts other writers and their books, and people like you light the way. You have no idea how much it means.

Julie Metz talks about EVA AND EVE, her stunning new memoir, reliving her mother's extraordinary life, and so much more


Julie Metz is the author of the newly released memoir Eva and Eve and the New York Times bestselling memoir Perfection, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection. She has written on a wide range of women’s issues for publications including: The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Dame,, Salon, Slice, Redbook, Glamour, Next Tribe,, and Coastal Living. Her essays have appeared in the anthologies The Moment, edited by Larry Smith, creator of “Six-Word Memoirs,” and The House That Made Me, edited by Grant Jarrett.

Julie is a fellow of The Yaddo Corporation, The MacDowell Colony, The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and The Vermont Studio Center. She is also the winner of a Literary Death Match, the international competitive reading series founded by Adrian Zuniga (she brought a sword).

Julie lives with her family in the Hudson River Valley. I'm thrilled to host her here. Thank you, Julie!

C: What was the “Why Now” moment that haunted you into writing this particular book now?


J: I like your use of the word “haunted,” because that is kind of what happened. My mother and I had a complicated relationship during our lives together and that didn’t end with her death. Shortly after she died, I discovered a keepsake book she’d kept hidden in the back of a drawer for decades. My father had never seen it and they were married for fifty-four years. This keepsake book was one of the few personal possessions she was able to bring with her from Vienna when she and her parents fled Nazi persecution in March 1940. It was filled with inscriptions from childhood friends, relatives, and teachers, and we immediately wondered if those people had survived. It was clear to me that this secret book held a lot of grief and sorrow and also anger. My mother told only a few stories about her childhood. I began thinking about my mother as a ten-year-old in 1938 and the terror she lived through as a child as the family struggled to get to America. War leaves a mark on everyone it touches. There was no one left to tell me everything that had happened, so my research process started as a desire to fill in the spaces in the narrative. I am not an observant Jew, but two traditional questions surfaced: “If not me, then who? If not now, then when?”


C: In reliving-through-writing your mother’s story after her death, how did your relationship with her (since relationships don’t necessarily end with death) change?

J: In so many ways, my research and writing were part of my grieving process. The arc of grief can be long, especially where there are many unanswered questions. I wanted to understand my mother, to know her in ways she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, share during her life. At times I felt like she left me clues to follow. She’d saved all the family paperwork and photographs and sometimes a document or photo would slip out just when I needed to see it. At times it truly felt like a séance. I untangled some mysteries and came to a place of deeper understanding and compassion.

This book reveals how trauma can indeed be passed down through the generations. Do you see a way out of that?

Writing about this time has helped me understand the legacy of war and persecution on generations that follow. I’ve met Bosnians and Serbians who have stories to tell about the genocide of the 1990s and how it carries into the present day. I’ve read about the aftermath of genocide in Rwanda. I’ve read two recent memoirs by Vietnamese refugees still living with the aftermath of the war there. I am not sure what the way out is, but since so many immigrants are fleeing situations of persecution and terror, I hope that there can be more compassion for the plight of people forced to leave their homes.

What was your research like and what surprised you the most?

I am not a trained historian, so I learned on the job. I had help from wonderful historians…What amazed me was how many historians are devoting their working lives to studying not just interwar Jewish culture generally, but specifically the world of Vienna’s Jews. The city in those years was a cultural hub and people migrated there from all over central Europe. I didn’t realize how integrated Jews were in this city, and that despite periods of antisemitism, they felt at home. I’d always wondered why the Jews of Vienna didn’t flee as soon as Hitler rose to power in neighboring Germany. They felt they were safe in Austria, that the hell that had begun in Germany couldn’t possibly reach them. This was the tragedy. A group of people that had given so much—in music, literature, art, theater, science—were negated practically overnight.

C: What’s obsessing you now and why?

Even after years exploring the interwar culture of Jewish life in Vienna, the world of my mother’s childhood, I find that I’m not done yet. There are more stories to tell and I’m searching for them now in my obsessive way.


What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

During this past year I’ve asked friends near and far what has helped them cope with the emotional and physical isolation of this time. Their answers have been so powerful in helping me take care of my mind and body when I just wanted to sit inside and eat chocolate. I’m vaccinated now (thank you science!). What am I most looking forward to? It’s starting to happen. I attended an outdoor art opening in my town. We invited two friends over for dinner and as they came through the door I nearly wept with relief. I will never take these simple human pleasures for granted again.


Thursday, April 22, 2021

Happy Earth Day! Melissa Checker's moving, super-important essay about her book The Sustainability Myth, exploring the relationship between environmental justice and climate change activism.


HAPPY EARTH DAY! To celebrate, an essay from Melissa Checker, Associate Professor

PhD Programs in Anthropology and Environmental Psychology, the CUNY Graduate Center

Department of Urban Studies, Queens College.

Thank you so much, Melissa!

Legacies of Struggle

With a click, my mother, presses the car door lock of our powder blue Doge four-door. She pokes her head over the backseat, where I'm settled in with a pillow and some books.  "You can knock if you need anything, but only if you REALLY need something, she warns. "I'll be back in about an our. I watch her walk up the driveway to a small house covered by a peaked, black roof that slopes all the way down to graze the first-floor windows. On either side of it, a row of identical, partially attached homes make a zig-zag pattern as far as I can see. I’m between the ages of six and eight, and I am fascinated by these homes, this neighborhood.

On our cul-de-sac, just a few miles away, all the homes are separated by driveways, wide strips of grass, hedges, fences or flowers. Most of the families on our street and throughout upper middle-class Potomac, Maryland, a suburb just north of the Capitol Beltway, are white. But in this tiny townhome neighborhood, known as Scotland, all of the residents are black.

A homebound instructor for Montgomery County Public Schools, my mother provides instruction to kids who are too ill or injured to attend school. She works with students throughout Potomac, but I only remember going with her to Scotland. Both of my parents are children of Russian Jewish immigrants, and they can barely afford to live in this fancy school district. My mother rushes home after her last homebound student to see private tutoring clients, and my father teaches SAT prep classes in the evenings and some weekends. When I am home from school -- with strep throat or, more often, with a case of not liking school – my mother has few childcare options. Working mothers are still shunned among Potomac’s wealthy families, but Scotland’s mothers seem to understand the situation.

Before long, I hear a knock on the car window. “Come on, honey,” says a woman about my mother’s age. Her hair is covered by a scarf and she has smooth, coffee-colored skin. “You can come on in the house.” I unlock the doors and follow the woman inside. My mother is sitting at the dining room table across from a teenage boy, his leg propped up on a pillow and covered in a hip to ankle cast.

“You can sit here,” says the woman pulling out a chair for me at the other end of the table. “Do you want some OJ?”

My mother looks up from the textbook spread before her on the table. “Try not to breathe on anyone.”

I receive a cup of juice, a stack of books, and some paper and crayons, but spend the rest of the hour staring at the glass bowls arranged on the dining room table, the photos and paintings hanging on the walls, the knick-knacks carefully arranged on credenzas, bookshelves and end tables. I am especially fascinated by two long, lace doilies that crisscross the dining room table in a T.

After the lesson, my mother spends another 20-30 minutes catching up Mrs. Young on her son’s progress. As we finally drive down the hill leading out of Scotland, a few of the men and women we pass wave to my mother. “That’s the father of L____,” she’ll say waving back. “He’s Mrs. Young’s first cousin.” Or, “That’s Mrs. Mason. She’s in charge around here.”

In the late 1800s, a farm that had fallen into tax arrears was subdivided into small, several-acre parcels and auctioned off to a few formerly enslaved men and their direct descendants. Within a couple decades, 50 households had settled in the area. Although Scotland residents owned property and paid taxes, the neighborhood did not have paved roads, running water, gas or sewer lines. During the post-World War II-era, agriculture gave way to development, work was harder and harder to come by, and the public school system remained separate-but-unequal. By the mid-1960s, many of Scotland’s cash-strapped landowners sold their properties to developers or to the County. Remaining homes had fallen into disrepair – in 1964, the County condemned 23 of the neighborhood’s 35 homes.

But this was also the Civil Rights era, and neighborhood leaders began to organize, forming a committee known as “Save Our Scotland.”. According to available reports, Potomac residents rallied in support, signing petitions, engaging in community cleanups and raising money for a community center and the hiring of a social worker. These efforts eventually led to the formation of Scotland Community Development, Inc. (SCD). Within a few years, the SCD pieced together enough federal and state funding to raze all of the neighborhood’s existing homes and break ground on 100 new townhouses. 75 of the units included rent subsidies, and 25 were sold back to Scotland residents for $15-18,000.

Despite access to affordable housing, Scotland residents did not fare well during the 1970s recession, or eight years of Reagan-ism. Reports of crime, drugs and arrests in the neighborhood increased and were fueled by Reagan’s expansion of the War on Drugs. Potomac’s progressive allies now focused their energies on distant causes. In junior high and high school, we campaigned to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a federal holiday and wrote letters to Nelson Mandela in prison. But we looked right past the struggles going on in our own zip code.

Although we socialized with Scotland students in school and at parties, the lunchroom remained an unfailingly segregated space. Kids from Scotland kids sat together, occupying two or three tables while the rest of us sat in typical high school formations – jocks, cheerleaders, geeks, theater nerds, honors students. Crossing the lunchroom divide seemed as unthinkable as driving into the neighborhood. In fact, mentioning my childhood visits to Scotland elicited such skeptical looks from my peers, that I stopped bringing it up.

My questions about Scotland lingered. What kinds of opportunities allowed my parents to purchase homes in Potomac, which they later mortgaged to send my sisters and me to private colleges? Why were these opportunities unavailable to Scotland’s families? Why wasn’t access to low-cost housing enough to eradicate poverty? What did self-avowed liberals choose to know – and not know – about the experiences of their low-income neighbors?

I decided to answer such questions from the vantage point of everyday experience, which led me to pursue a PhD in cultural anthropology. Initially, I intended to study residential segregation and racialized housing markets. But a few years into my program, I heard about a relatively new social movement, known as environmental justice. Combining racial and social justice with environmentalism, environmental justice opposes the uneven distribution of environmental benefits and burdens.

African Americans are exposed to 38% more air pollution than white people and are 75% more likely to live near toxic pollution than the rest of the U.S. population, according to a 2017 study. Although communities of color are far more likely to suffer from the effects of contamination and climate change than their white counterparts, reports  show that Blacks and Hispanics are exposed to 56% and 63% (respectively) more pollution than they produce. Such disparities are rooted in the same cumulative and overlapping racial inequalities --in education, employment, health care, criminal justice, banking, tax policies, home ownership, governance, etc. -- that circumscribed the lives of Scotland residents. 

Environmental exposures become a viscous cycle, compounding the obstacles facing communities of color. Respiratory illnesses (which require expensive medicines and inhalers) cause children to miss school and parents to miss work. Toxic chemicals in the air and the soil produce reproductive, cardiac, dermatological and other disorders, in addition to cancers. They also make outdoor activities like gardening, playing, and even walking, dangerous, leading to even more health problems. This past year, a study by Harvard’s School of Public Health linked air pollution to higher COVID-19 death rates.

Over the past two decades, I have spent countless hours sitting in the dining rooms of people affected by environmental racism, listening to their stories. Because participant observation is my primary mode of study, I have spent even more hours alongside local environmental justice activists as they pass out flyers, write grants, attend public meetings, strategize, become enraged, experience crushing disappointments – and every so often – celebrate a victory. It has been my honor to participate in these struggles and to get to know the people who tirelessly drive them forward.

My recent book, The Sustainability Myth, tackles the relationship between environmental justice and climate change activism. Specifically, I study the impact of sustainability policies and practices in New York City on formerly industrial, low-income communities of color. I link the greening of these neighborhoods was intricately linked to high-end real estate development and housing insecurity. More insidiously, I find that as some neighborhoods green, environmental burdens multiply in those not slated for redevelopment.

In a city renowned for its liberalism, many environmentally minded New Yorkers are surprisingly limited by the same far-sightedness I witnessed growing up. Certainly, we need to advocate for carbon emissions reductions, plastic straw bans, greener buildings, bike lanes and so many other things. But we also need to make sure, on a local level, that environmental reforms do not protect some more than others. As one environmental justice asked me (rhetorically), “Did these [liberal activists] ever come to our meetings? Do they even know what environmental justice is?”

It is time to think globally and to act locally, to ensure that stands against racism, climate change, environmental destruction – involve difficult, nitty gritty of everyday struggles for justice. Back in 1965, Scotland activist, Geneva Mason told the Montgomery County Planning Board, "You need people like us in the county as much as you need some of your white, rich people."

Her words echo those of Martin Luther King, Jr, who two years earlier wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Friday, April 16, 2021

Oh yes, Annie Lamott's husband Neal Allen gives the most funny, spiritual, personal blog post about his book SHAPES OF TRUTH: Discover God Inside You, and fun tidbits about Anne. Pre-order now! How can anyone resist?


Portrait of the author with his wife, Anne Lamott, and a very suspicious looking needle.


When Annie Lamott tells me I have to read something, I read it. She pressed her husband Neal Allen’s book SHAPES OF TRUTH into my hand and I was immediately fascinated. Neal has truly written a guide to transforming ourselves by paying attention to the body-forms that are inside of us, each one representing 35 different aspects of God within us.


I have tons of questions and I am delighted to have Neal here. (And hi, Annie!)


I always want to know how writers decide on writing a particular book. How they were almost haunted into writing it. Tell us your origin story!


I got dragged into this book, actually. Which is kind of how I look at life these days. The hippies and nicer people call it going with the flow. But sometimes it’s keel-hauling. Anyway, I had been in this lovely little cult in Berkeley under the tutelage of a very smart – like in physicist smart – guru, and he taught us about these peculiar shapes that we could find in our bodies if we looked hard enough. (It wasn’t really a cult. They didn’t take all my money and get mad when six or seven years later I quit. It was more like a crowd of very loving people who shared their complaints freely.) The peculiar shapes reminded me of something I had been forced to study in college – Plato – and I kept thinking about that after I had quit the group, which is known as Diamond Heart, which really sounds like a cult, doesn’t it? (I actually liked college and Plato.) So I emailed the guru, whose name is Hameed Ali, but who has written many books published now by Shambhala under the pen-name A.H. Almaas, and told him, “You should write a book about how you have rediscovered a corner of Platonism that seems to have been lost for 2,500 years.” He wrote back that yes, that would make a fine book, but he had other books to write. If I wanted to write such a book, he said, he would help me. Unfortunately, I owed him. His teachings had changed my life for the better, and so the book became my next project.


In its first draft, the book was erudite and even scholarly to a point. It was majorly about Platonism, Western philosophy, and the brilliant mind of Hameed Ali. Two publishers in a row thought better of that. Oddly, they wanted to sell more than three copies. After fuming and muttering about kowtowing to a READERSHIP, I wrote a very different book, which I’d like to think is both more accessible and not dumbed down.


Shapes of Truth is extraordinary. I’m sure you can explain the book far better than I can about how it is a simple, practical way to bring the divine into your life using body-forms. So please go ahead.


This is the part of me that drives my famously pithy wife crazy. “Why can’t you figure out a simple answer to that question, Neal, and STICK TO IT?” Let’s put it this way: Through a simple technique, you can open a kind of snow-globe inside your body, a cavity that temporarily displaces random organs, and inside it a simple form – blob, cube, sphere, whatever – with a color, shape, and density will show up and just sit there waiting to be inspected. There’s a universal catalog. Only thirty-five of these pure shapes exist. Your red sphere is the same as my red sphere. I call these things body-forms. Hameed Ali, their discoverer, refers to them as essential aspects. Aspects of what? God, I suppose, or Consciousness, or the divine, or even the core me. Atheists find the objects, too, the same way. If you look at these things enough times – it takes maybe a half hour on average each time – you start to believe that you’re actually made of this kind of stuff. It’s another way to question the nagging list-maker, the inner critic, who runs things and belittles me into thinking I’m just an empty personality who should be devoted to productive tasks like making money and doing the dishes.


Why wasn’t this transformative practice known before to the general public? Tell us how you discovered it—and also what discoveries did you make in the writing?


I didn’t discover the body-forms, which is probably a good thing. If I had found them on my own I might have felt a need to keep them precious, use them in the best possible way, and protect my discovery from harm. I get to be more reckless, and just throw them out there. Hey, here’s this cool, trippy thing. Check it out. Hameed Ali discovered them about forty years ago, but his Diamond Heart program is a pretty closed mystery school. It has rigor and purpose, unlike me, and so he didn’t see any reason to popularize what he had discovered beyond his students. Then there’s the bigger question whether Plato knew about the body-forms but hid them, and why they’ve been lost for 2,500 years. Beats me. The only cognates that Hameed Ali and I have found, looking around at various philosophical, metaphysical and religious systems, are what are known as the lataif to the Sufi, who are the mystical branch of Islam. But the lataif comprise only five, six, or seven of the body-forms, depending on which Sufi author you read. Hameed Ali and his two sidekicks are responsible for the discovery of the full catalog of thirty-five.

The book states: Not only do the embodied experiences provide wisdom; they also grant immediate and sustained relief from everyday suffering. Tell us how they do this?


Here’s the genius of these thirty-five peculiar interior objects. Each one corresponds to the inner support we have for a specific human suffering. Do you suffer from feeling stupid or weak? The red body-form has a way of telling you about your inner strength and discriminatory powers. Do you suffer from feeling unloved? The pink body-form reminds you of your goofy, loving inner five-year-old with her EZ Bake Oven. You’ve still got that simple love inside you; it’s just hidden under layers of sunglass-wearing, grim, serious, snarky adulthood. And if I can spend a few minutes with my embarrassingly well-loved pink self, I’ve given my thoughts time away from my cockroach boss who deserves Terminix.


I admit that as soon as I try to visual something (unless I am writing, then I am lost in the vivid world), my mind goes blank. I can FEEL things though, but I cannot see them in this way. Any words of wisdom to help me?


First you have to leave Hoboken and move to Marin County. It’s weirdly normal out here in Northern California to be woo-woo. But be warned that besides losing the fun of contempt and general irony shared by New Yorkers, you have to be willing to give up all that good-tasting food in the interest of perfect conformity with the earth gods by living on kale, roots, and fermented blecch. I know of which I talk here. I was a New Yorker type for nearly twenty-five of my adult years. (Tell your husband, Jeff, that I was there at Maxwell’s the night that J. Macsis and Ira Kaplan nearly got into a fistfight.)


The book describes a method for evoking a body-form that involves a second person, a friend or partner. With another person in the room directing questions, the method works about ninety-five percent of the time. Many of my clients are hard-core rationalists who have no experience with weird visualizations. Don’t ask me why this is so simple for people. It just is.


In chapter 18 you talk about how this can be true in a modern world full of physics, chemistry, science. You write that these body forms exist in their own realm. Is this also an act of faith, in a way?


My wife is a person of faith, no question. I’m more the type who believes in the truth of the experiences that I have engaged, at least those that were charged with an immediate sense of aliveness and wonder. Kirkus Reviews gave me a somewhat favorable notice, but the reviewer couldn’t get over the idea that I said these body-forms were accessible to atheists even as I called them aspects of God. The two ideas didn’t square for him, and I get that. I spent the first two thirds of my adult life as an atheist, and I started to experience these body-forms while still needing no God. Did they emerge from faith? Not particularly. Did they encourage faith? Maybe, I’m not sure. I’m still pretty drawn to the idea that there is nothing so ineffable that it is incapable of being articulated. That might obviate faith at least insofar as it’s supposed to take the place of knowledge.



So, I know you and your wife Annie Lamott trade pages, what is that like?


When we first met, I had read only one thing by Annie, an online essay about her experience with Since we were meeting for a date through an offshoot of Match for decrepit old people, I read the essay for content – TIPS I MIGHT USE TO SEDUCE HER – not style. (She claims that I proceeded to tell her that the essay made me worry that she was frigid. I also made her cry. My seduction skills are clearly questionable. If you buy my book, the foreword by Annie details that first date.)


About a week into our going out together, we exchanged writings. We were on her couch, early evening. She handed me an essay that she was proud of. I gave her an unpublished short story. This was perhaps the scariest moment in what is now four and a half years together. I knew she was a popular author, which isn’t the same thing as a good writer. She didn’t know a thing about my writing, since I’d been a hack – suburban newspapers, supermarket tabloids, then corporate work in communications departments. Anybody can call herself a writer, which is a good thing. Creativity deserves to be democratic, and writers of any sort deserve to spend their time in creativity. But still, there’s a snobbery to people who grew up with a literary pantheon, which Annie and I both did. My parents had their careers as lawyer and urban planner but also were copy editor types who demanded the King’s English at the very least. Annie’s father was a New Yorker caliber book and essay writer. Annie and I both strove to be writers with a capital W. And we both knew that calling yourself a writer doesn’t mean you’re what we might call a good writer. So on that couch with her essay in my hands, it was a helluva relief when she passed the audition with flying colors, of course. (Telling this story later to an acquaintance, she looked at me aghast: “You were worried that ANNE LAMOTT might not be a good enough writer?”) And on that same sofa after reading my story Annie ACTED like I had passed, too. It wasn’t until a few days later when she asked me to edit something she had just drafted that I knew I was OK. One thing a good writer will not do is allow a bad writer to edit them.


In one way it’s easy for us to be each other’s first reader or editor. We trust the other’s judgment. Annie makes suggestions that I immediately reject and twenty-four hours later accept in full. She, on the other hand, agrees to most of my changes on the spot and sends off the piece an hour later. Neither of us touches the other’s diction or what some people call voice. Annie, for instance, can find a rhythm that allows for two examples in a secondary clause while I need a third for the clause to feel complete to me. She doesn’t cut my third and I don’t add to her two.


In the other way of being edited, what a sourpuss might call the psychological, emotional, insecure, beaten, or self-hating way, Annie and I have the same task with each other that any reader has with any low-esteemed writer, which is redundant. First remind the writer that he or she is brilliant and that the essay or book in question is important and real and fresh. Then say, “I just found some little bitty things, nothing crazy or too structural, and I can go through them with you if you’d like?” Or in the other case, “The writing is so funny and sharp, and clear, but I got hung up a little in this one place. Fortunately, it’s a simple switching of two sections, just a minor structural thing, no need for any rewriting. The words and ideas are all there, and as usual, are brilliant.”


And after pointing things out, go back to “brilliant.” It’s always the right word, like “cute” while shopping for clothes.


 What is obsessing you now and why?


Our favorite detective shows to binge on are Scandinavian. The characters are very nice to each other. American TV characters are sarcastic and mean to each other constantly. And while British and French characters aren’t as nice in their downtime as Scandinavians, they’re kinder than American characters. We’re in the twenty-third season of Silent Witness, a British forensics series. We love Nikki, who is a very sincere person, and will be sad when she leaves our TV-mediated lives at the end of the next season. Also Thomas, Jack, and of course Clarissa.


I’ve also been thinking a lot about metaphor, and how I might just be another metaphor, or really a container for a series of metaphors interacting with the metaphors around me. I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist texts lately, and the Middle Way – not too materialist and not too idealized – seems to open up metaphor as a respectable version of real life.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?


In how many different ways were the Beatles astounding?

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Why is America so obsessed with breasts? Leslie Lehr offers up an excerpt from her new book BOOBS: HOW AMERICA'S OBSESSION SHAPED ME AND YOU. Read an excerpt right here!

When it came to having breasts, I was late to the party. While everyone in sixth grade was happily (don't ask me why) getting their bra straps snapped by boys, I was cringing in an undershirt. I didn't get my very first bra until I was in 8th grade and then it had the odious name of "training bra." Sometimes it was called a "Gro Bra," which seemed even worse. The one I bought was a size 32AAAA, a thin little piece of stretch fabric. And of course, I loved it. 

This is part of why I adored Leslie Lehr's new book A Boob's Life; How America's Obsession Shaped Me..and You.

From her prize-winning fiction to her viral New York Times Modern Love essay, exploring the challenges facing contemporary women has been Leslie Lehr's passion. In A Boob's Life: How America's Obsession Shaped Me... and You, Lehr's first project since breast cancer treatment, she continues this mission, taking readers on a wildly informative, deeply personal, and utterly relatable journey. With raves from Publisher's Weekly and KirkusPeople Magazine and Glamour introduced it in "Best New Books," Good Morning America has it their list of "Must-Reads," and ETOnline called Lehr a "trailblazing woman...changing the world." Salma Hayek is developing A Boob's Life as a TV comedy series for HBO Max.

A prize-winning writer, Leslie's books include What a Mother Knows, Wife Goes on, and 66 Laps, winner of the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Prize. Her nonfiction includes Welcome to Club Mom, Club Grandma, excerpted on and Wendy Bellissimo: Nesting, featured on Oprah. 

Leslie's is also the novel consultant for Truby Writers Studio.

And most importantly Leslie is my friend.

Read an excerpt from A BOOB'S LIFE RIGHT HERE! (And thank you Leslie.)

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

From the Nothing is Cancelled Virtual Book Tour: Paul Waters talks about Northern Ireland, writing, being from Belfast and his new novel, Blackwatertown



  The author's great uncle Mike (RUC District Inspector Michael Murphy) escorting Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth in Belfast city centre in the 1940s.

THE novel! Buy it now!

Portrait of the author in the real bBackwatertown


 Ah, yes, the Nothing is Cancelled Virtual Book Tour still exists! (Though most of my energy is now at A Mighty Blaze.) Here we are honored to host Paul Waters, author, journalist and broadcaster (check him out at talking about his new book Blackwatertown, about betrayal, family secrets and Northern Ireland. And it's wonderful. Thank you so much for being here, Paul! And for writing such a great essay here below!




What was haunting me as I wrote Blackwatertown, a crime thriller set on the 1950s Irish border, were the generations of secret policemen stretching back in my family history. They’re the inspiration for the book.

It’s not that they worked in espionage. They weren’t spies. It’s more that we never ever talked about it. It wasn’t safe. Growing up during the Northern Ireland “Troubles”, you learned to govern your tongue. And no wonder, when you consider what some in the family did: escorted royalty (that’s my sword-wielding great uncle Mike with the then Princess Elizabeth in Belfast), faked ambushes, arrested a Prime Minister, and covertly invaded the Republic of Ireland – though to be fair, that last one was an accident.

They were police before and after, north and south of the Irish border. But it was a forbidden topic of conversation - because loose lips can lead to a mercury tilt switch wired to explosives being hidden under your car overnight.

We were Catholics. And being Catholic in the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary added layers of complication. Catholics in general often felt alienated from what sometimes seemed to be an oppressive and discriminatory police force, especially when the political conflict turned violent. Meanwhile, Protestant officers sometimes felt suspicious of their few Catholic colleagues – a potential enemy within. Which made my own family members in the RUC very careful. Though the fraternity of being officers on the frontline together could outweigh the differences.

We kept a lot under wraps back then. School uniforms, for instance. My father would never start his car until every inch of uniform worn by his young passengers was covered up with long black coats. The regular route to school passed through a Protestant district of Belfast, where visible Catholicism might be spotted and noted, along with the car license plate.

Overall, we got off very lightly compared to others. When things did occur, as they did to many families, the trick was to never talk about it. Feign confusion. Be vague. Had it even happened at all? Occasionally the signs were as hard to miss as bomb damage.

Looking back now, I wonder how many were really fooled by our performance? But the “whatever you say, say nothing” lesson was firmly imprinted on me.

Which is one reason writing fiction did not come early or easily. As a BBC TV and radio reporter I’ve helped many other people tell their stories to the world. Not a problem – rather a privilege, a joy and sometimes a duty. But writing fiction reveals self. Opening up makes you vulnerable. And not just in the please-like-me/like-my-writing way.

That may be why I set my book Blackwatertown in the 1950s. It’s fiction, but draws upon real stories not recorded in the history books or reported in newspapers. Can anyone seriously still be angry or feel personally threatened by allusion to lawbreaking by the law enforcers so many years later? It turns out that the answers are yes, and yes. Maybe I should have tracked back another hundred years to be on the safe side?

The ‘50s feel like a forgotten time in Northern Ireland. BTV – Before TV. The 1950s were eclipsed by the assertiveness and noise and horror of the decades that followed. I’ve been gripped for years by the writing of Eoin McNamee and Maurice Leitch, who pick their way through the dreamworld before “the Troubles”. And I wanted to tell other tales from back then, that reflected the experiences of the family stories that haunted my imagination. They were too good to let be forgotten.

Inconvenient truths and misfits make good stories. Catholics in the RUC fit into both categories. Simultaneously not to be trusted in the most menial employment, (according to a Northern Ireland Prime Minister), while deemed to have the right stuff to escort a visiting king or princess. Or more relevantly, be shot at defending the state that deemed them inherently inferior.

My protagonist, Jolly Macken, is a Catholic police sergeant, demoted and banished to the sleepy border village of Blackwatertown after inadvertently surfing a long rock down a mountain into Northern Ireland’s loudest Lambeg drum and scattering an Orange march. RIP drum and exile for Macken. He’d rather be left alone to walk the Mourne mountains and fish for dollaghan. But over the course of a week in Blackwatertown he uncovers dark family secrets, falls in love, accidentally starts a war, and is hailed a hero and branded a traitor. There’s also the small matter of finding who killed his brother, even if that killer is a fellow officer. When Blackwatertown explodes into violence, who can Macken trust? And is betrayal the only way to survive?

It’s not all grim. Gallows humour is the funniest. Laughs can feel more liberating than the liberation struggle. Sicilian author Andrea Camilleri taught me that accidental nakedness perks up everyone.

But how did these stories, real and imagined, get their hooks into me as a child, when everyone around me was so secretive and close-lipped?

Somebody blabbed. Somebody always does.


Shout out another author:

I’m from Belfast. Thirty miles south is the small coastal town of Dundrum, home to author and guitarist Gerard Brennan. His latest book, Shot, is the start of a cool new contemporary crime fiction series set in Northern Ireland, featuring Detective Sergeant Shannon McNulty.


Shout out an indie bookstore:

If you’re ever in Belfast, you should visit the iconic and hospitable No Alibis Bookshop on Botanic Avenue. It’s Northern Ireland’s cultural hub and a magnet for writers from all over the world. The owner, David Torrans, was immortalised in Colin Bateman’s Mystery Man thriller. David claims he bears no resemblance to his fictional counterpart, but we know better. He also makes a decent cup of tea and has an online/mail order service for the latest in Irish crime, thrillers and mysteries.