Review: More Than We Bargained for by John Stefanini

Originally published in Foreword Reviews:

MORE THAN WE BARGAINED FOR

AN UNTOLD STORY OF EXPLOITATION, REDEMPTION, AND THE MEN WHO BUILT A WORKER’S EMPIRE

John Stefanini 
Sutherland House (Sep 4, 2019)
Hardcover $29.95 (268pp)
978-1-9994395-3-8

Clarion Rating: 5 out of 5

More than We Bargained For is an enthralling immigrant’s story about overcoming adversity.

John Stefanini’s memoir More than We Bargained For tells a hopeful story of emigration from post-WWII Italy to Canada in the late 1950s, concentrating on Stefanini’s pivotal role as a union organizer and activist in the manufacturing and construction industries.

Stefanini arrived in Toronto in 1959, speaking little English. The job he obtained as a plasterer awoke him to the fact that his fellow immigrants, especially those employed in related fields of manufacturing and construction, endured unsafe working conditions without access to affordable healthcare. Determined to make a difference, Stefanini joined a labor union. Over the course of decades, he proved to be a tough but fair negotiator who lobbied businesses and politicians to assure better wages and safer environments, bringing about positive change for workers in Canada.

Stefanini’s work also examines the influence of immigrants in a positive light, particularly in regard to their role in nation building in post-WWII North America. Reminiscing about his earlier experiences, he identifies with the plight of such invariably poor and vulnerable people, showing how they made long journeys across oceans and found assimilation difficult due to language barriers. Enthusiastic support for immigrants is apparent in accounts of Stefanini’s tireless union work, as well as his assertion that immigrants’ successes contributed much to the economy and infrastructure of Canada.

Addressing the less savory side of activism, the book does not shy away from examining the fact labor strikes occasionally led to violence. In frank language, it describes Stefanini’s frustration over his own imprisonment following a volatile altercation between union and non-union members. The experience becomes a way to delve into inadequacies of the judicial system of Canada, as does Stefanini’s explanation of how his confusion about the actual length of his sentence led to an extended incarceration—yet another challenge to be overcome.

The straight, linear narrative is journalistic in style, putting Stefanini’s story into historical context through painstaking examinations of the political climate of the time and naming key players in the unions, corporations, and governments of Canada and the United States. It doubles as a researched history of labor unions in North America, backed up with references to other works about the struggles of Italian immigrants during Stefanini’s years of activism.

Important for its statement on the positive impact one man can have in advancing a social movement, More than We Bargained For is an enthralling immigrant’s story about overcoming adversity.

Reviewed by Lisa Guidarini 
July 23, 2019

Disclosure: This article is not an endorsement, but a review. The author of this book provided free copies of the book and paid a small fee to have their book reviewed by a professional reviewer. Foreword Reviews and Clarion Reviews make no guarantee that the author will receive a positive review. Foreword Magazine, Inc. is disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

From Philip Roth’s home to mine: on buying a piece of his estate

Since reading Portnoy’s Complaint sometime back in the 90s, I’ve never been a Philip Roth fan. But tell me he’s dead and they’re selling his stuff, and I’m all over it.

I blame it on Twitter: specifically, author and Chicago Tribune “Biblioracle” columnist John Warner, who, on that fateful day, tweeted he’d won an auction for Philip Roth’s alarm clock.

Wait. What?

It was Saturday, July 20. I work part days on Saturdays, and to stave off the boredom and resentment I always have my phone next to me, left hand scrolling Facebook and Twitter limitlessly. Running bang up against John’s tweet, I grabbed the URL for the Roth estate auction.

Ebay made up the entirety of my previous auction experience. I used to drop in once in a while, to snap up old Penguin paperback editions and the occasional oddity, like a postcard from the town in the Netherlands where my family hailed from — hey, big spender.

Litchfield County Auctions is the real deal, where the rich go to pick up Persian rugs and Chippendale armoires. I felt like someone’s hick relative in overalls, sucking on a piece of straw. But such is the beauty of the internet: “belonging” there only means I haven’t reached the limit on my credit card.

It was phenomenal, like someone had taken Roth’s house just as he’d left it, turned it on its side and shook every, single damn thing out. You name it, they sold it. There were ratty old afghans, lamps and tables, fine collectible Chinese vases and figurines, paintings and so many silver pieces. So many.

As it was a live auction, all I had to do was shove my credit card information at them, watching as each item came up and bidding commenced. While some things went for tens of thousands, a few bits and bobs, I noticed, were quite affordable. Tentatively, I hit the bid button for a couple vases. When they rose too high for my blood, I went on to a Chinese figurine. Unwilling to chase it over $ 100, I scrolled ahead to upcoming items.

Then I saw it: a Chinese reverse painting on glass.

I had only the vaguest idea what “reverse painting” meant, but it was lovely and the estimated sale price was in the range I was willing to spend. I watched as one person bid, then another. It wasn’t getting a lot of attention; I held my breath. When last call!, then final warning!!! popped up I swooped in and bid as the gavel came down.

I imagined the glowing face of the high bidder as the auctioneer was ready to call it, mentally measuring out the place he’d hang it next to the fireplace, his new “Roth niche.”

Then, BAM!

“You’ve been outbid, sucker!”

All’s fair in love and auctions.


My impression of Roth’s writing, aside from the narrow scope of my experience with Portnoy, was that he’s a man’s writer. And when I say man’s writer, I’m staring squarely at Ernest Hemingway — poster boy for excess testosterone. Not that I imagine the scholarly Jewish writer had a penchant for big game hunting, nor that he regularly got toasted and ripped off his shirt in his editor’s office, as Hemingway was wont to do.

Roth was a bit more restrained. Just a tad.

Fairly or not (probably not), judging him solely based on a novel about a young man’s obsession with masturbation, I’ve always believed he’s a writer obsessed with sex.

Before you start going all feminist on me, I know full well women have written about sex. I have no issue with that, but, to my knowledge, none have done so quite so famously as Roth, at least not on the topic of young men and masturbation. And I’m not only not interested in young men and masturbation, I actively avoid it.

Perhaps I should use the word masturbation one more time in this post, what do you think.


Hey there, fella. You’re one magnificent bastard.

Since the Roth item arrived, I’ve begun researching his life and work, reading reviews and watching interviews on YouTube. Though it pains me to say it, I may have rushed to judgment. Philip Roth wrote some 30ish novels. The more I read, the more it behooves me to investigate him further before making up my mind he’s not my thing, if for no other reason than I own one small piece of his estate.

That I bought on impulse. Because Twitter made me.

Meanwhile, I have a lovely Chinese reverse painting on glass I need to hang in my Philip Roth niche. I don’t have a fireplace, but I do have an Ikea dresser. Chippendale it ain’t, but what did we decide about “belonging”?

It’s all about having room on your credit card.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: brief thoughts


An American Marriage

Algonquin, Feb 2018

A woman doesn’t always have a choice, not in a meaningful way. Sometimes there is a debt that must be paid, a comfort that she is obliged to provide, a safe passage that must be secured. Everyone of us has lain down for a reason that was not love.” 


― Tayari Jones, An American Marriage

Almost without exception, uber-popular novels disappoint me. An American Marriage kicked up so much pre-pub fuss I could see the dust swirling on the horizon as it galloped for town. Each review more laudatory than the last, by the time it hit the shelves I had to wear goggles to keep out the flying debris. When it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, that was the final straw.

Reader, I caved.

And I wasn’t blown away.

I’ve never differed from my favorite critic before. I do mean never. Ron Charles from The Washington Post is my go-to, the reviewer I trust not to kiss author ass when the rest of the world has puckered up. He praised An American Marriage. That is no small thing.

His opinions are the gospel according to St. Ron:


“Compelling . . . spun with tender patience by Jones, who cradles each of these characters in a story that pulls our sympathies in different directions. She never ignores their flaws, their perfectly human tendency toward self-justification, but she also captures their longing to be kind, to be just, to somehow behave well despite the contradictory desires of the heart.”

—Ron Charles, Washington Post


There’s a formula to hitting that blockbuster sweet spot, a tipping point at which all the review outlets are throwing out exclamation points and trite phrases like a BOGO sale. An American Marriage hit that mark. That’s why I steered clear as long as I did.

At the outset, I loved the book. Lyrically written and initially gripping, it sucked me right in. I thought to myself, here’s the rare exception to my rule about popular books. Beginning on the Friday of a long weekend I knew had to myself, since The Well-Beloved was otherwise engaged, I saw ahead of me 48 hours of reading bliss that didn’t quite materialize.

If you haven’t read it, the book is about a young couple struggling to hold their marriage together after the husband has been wrongfully jailed for assault. Celestial and Roy are still adjusting to married life when he’s convicted and sentenced to prison. Until his appeals are exhausted, the hope he’ll be freed is enough to maintain the bond. Once that’s lost, a yawning gulf opens, leaving just enough room for Andre, the friend who’s loved Celestial from childhood, to declare himself. The two fall in love.

When new evidence proves Roy’s innocence, he’s set free. Life being life, the struggle to right the balance is fraught. I won’t tell you how it ends, but you can imagine the hellish ride. There are a few well-executed subplots, but I won’t go into those. This isn’t a proper review.

A couple things stand between me and loving this book. First, what Ron Charles praises as “tender patience” was, to me, pacing that slowed to a crawl. Somewhere around halfway I put the book down. Wanting to know how it ended, but not thrilled with the knowledge that meant I’d have to finish reading it, I thought about googling for spoilers. I didn’t, deciding instead to plow through.

It’s just not tight enough. I love taut writing, extremely spare prose, and it’s the writer’s job to keep me gripped. Lyricism has its place, but Jones is an over-writer. She relies far too heavily on similes, and that grates. Her penchant for ending paragraphs with a flowery flourish yanked me out of the tale. This was the second stumbling block.

It was like trying to read attached to a bungee cord.

There’s much to admire in the book. For me, the drawbacks prevented me from falling in love. If there’s an upside, at least my disappointment with popular books remains unsullied.

Still, Ron Charles. Now that hurts. Not loving the book is one thing. The discomfort of disagreeing with The Critic is quite another.

I’m going to lick my wounds. I may be a while.

How I single-handedly destroyed book reviewing. Or not.


Bluestalking has served as a portfolio of sorts, initially the humble offering stretched out to publicists when begging review copies, before I had actual publishing credentials. I needed proof I had a platform, and readers who dropped by to listen to me yammer about books, so other publishers would give me more books.

Circle of life.

That’s how early bloggers leveraged their experience to branch out and write for other venues. There weren’t that many of us back in 2006, not like today, when countless cool kids are vlogging and podcasting and going all Facebook live. We reviewed the old fashioned way, in actual typewritten prose. And we liked it.

Instagram? YouTube? Try Blogspot and Blogger — Typepad if you could afford the subscription, then WordPress, once you figured out how to migrate your posts and navigate their platform.


At present, the only book-review videocast that’s widely available is the Washington Post’s The Totally Hip Video Book Review featuring Ron Charles. Charles, the regular fiction critic of Post, writes sincere, uninspiring reviews. The success of the videocast is Charles’s ability to laugh at himself. The episodes are, of course, totally unhip but charming nonetheless.

– Sarah Fay, “Could the Internet Save Book Reviews?”, The Atlantic, May 7, 2012


Get off my damn lawn, lousy millennials. You and your fancily composed tableaux of books, coffee with pretty designs carved in the foam – how do you even have the time? We downloaded cover photos from Amazon.

Guess what? We liked that, too

There used to be websites tracking book blogger rankings. If you dropped your guard your nemesis would sideswipe you, sending you skidding into the tires like an even nerdier version of Mario Kart. Amazon was brand new and already becoming a review site superpower, bloggers an extension of their reach. We became the first top Amazon reviewers just by showing up. Try accomplishing that now.

Try it, punk.


the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash–though it does involve that, as I will show in a moment–but constantly INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there 
are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about. If he is a top-notcher in his profession he may get hold of ten or twenty of them: more probably he gets hold of two or three. The rest of his work, however conscientious he may be in praising or damning, is in essence humbug. He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.

– George Orwell, Confessions of a Book Reviewer”



Upstarts like me were yelled at by literary critics of stature, academics bloviating about the ways we were ruining everything, taking their jobs by undercutting them. We weren’t specialized, had no idea what we were talking about. We were not professionals.

It’s funny to me now just how much that pissed me off at the time. Sitting in my living room in 2019, I’m frankly flattered they even noticed. It’s like getting a no thanks note from The New York Times. Usually they just ignore you; embrace the rejection.


– Dorothy Parker, book critic, The New Yorker

John Sutherland lead the crusade, positively apoplectic the great unwashed civilian book reviewers put ourselves out there — worse, that readers were responding. After one particularly insulting article I sniped back at him, though I wasn’t his primary target. On behalf of those without specific educational credentials, I felt personally affronted by his elitism. The purpose of reviews is to sell books, I told him. If you don’t sell the books, no one reads them. If no one reads them, his job was rendered moot.

As for reviewers on Amazon, why did you need a doctorate to have an opinion? He engaged me briefly, then crawled back inside his ivory tower.

It was awesome.


Nothing stands still on the web. There is emerging, on Amazon, a corps of regular ‘reviewers’, so called, trusted to kick up dust and move books. Dinahbitching is becoming institutionalised.

Why do the web-reviewers allow themselves to be recruited as unpaid hacks? Partly for freebies. But more because they enjoy shooting off their mouths. And they enjoy the power.

– the Guardian, 19 November 2006, “John Sutherland is SHOCKED by the state of book reviewing on the web”


“THE POWER!” We were mad with it: a vast conspiracy, one small step below the moon landing.

Knowing how it panned out, I can look back with a lot more empathy. His huffing and puffing appeared reactionary, half annoying and half amusing, but turns out the dude wasn’t wearing an aluminum foil hat. His fears were not misplaced.

Overall, the market for writing about books and literature has atrophied almost to distinction, comparatively speaking. Most national papers have cut books sections, those that remain no longer plump and healthy. A large percentage of literary journals have either gone belly up or migrated exclusively online, printing costs skyrocketing past the point of affordability.

It pains me to admit John Sutherland had a point.

Writing in the literary field is not a viable career path; it’s been decimated. If you’re still undeterred, you better be prepared to violently elbow other writers in the ribs and push some prams in front of speeding busses. Respect to the strugglers, but this is why I’m not quitting my day job.

Fair warning: I’d still keep an eye on that pram, not gonna lie.

The internet opened up writing and reviewing to the masses, and when publishing professionals saw that they swooped in. Given a choice between paying an exorbitant wage to an established writer or giving away a few books to popular blogger/reviewers, which do you suppose a financially-strapped publisher would choose?



Word of mouth isn’t so easily separable from book reviews. What is a good review from Michiko Kakutani but a recommendation directly from a reader to hundreds of thousands of her closest non-friends? As with word of mouth, it’s tough to measure the impact of a glowing review on sales numbers. Still, one study showed that reviews do influence libraries’ purchasing choices. Another suggested that New York Times reviews swayed sales. In 2010, GoodReads pulled charts showing massive spikes in certain books’ activity after the books were reviewed or recommended on major platforms.

-Claire Fallon, Book Critics Don’t Exist to Flatter Your Taste” HuffPo, Nov. 25, 2015

Once through the door, a lot of talented people took advantage of the opportunity and carried it further. That’s called opportunity, and it’s no bad thing.

Are book bloggers responsible for the partial collapse of formal criticism? I still say no: the two markets are very distinct. Everything we’re seeing was inevitable following the explosion of the internet. It would have happened without us.



New York Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani steps down to write a book about Donald Trump


The arts aren’t immune to rules of supply and demand. When the walls came down, canny writers with drive were able to break into the old boys’ club, throwing their legs over a few wingbacks and grabbing handfuls of Cubans. But maybe this lot of mostly old, white men had grown too complacent. Maybe writing about literature needed an injection of fresh blood.

Shaking things up every few hundred years is no bad thing. A little scary, granted, but necessary for growth.

Blogging opened a lot of doors I’d never have found on my own. I’m still not published in Harper’s, but it’s paid off far beyond the time I’ve invested. There’s more I could be doing, but work-life-avocation balance is a consideration. And I’m not quite dead yet. I nominate myself as one of the top thousand-ish writers to watch under 60.

DON’T BLINK.

I appreciate the opportunity afforded to writers by the grace of the internet. It’s not all good or fair, but was it before? It’s a damn sight more accessible, this I know. It’s also dynamic, still in transition. When I revisit this in another 15 years, who knows?

The exciting part is it’s completely unpredictable; it will never, ever grow stale. As long as there are markets I can barge into, and ribs to elbow, I’m happy taking the good right along with the bad.


Happy Birthday, Beatrix Potter

28 July 1866 – 22 December 1943

We know her as the creator of Peter Rabbit, but Helen Beatrix Potter was also a talented illustrator, natural scientist and conservationist.

Life-long lovers of animals, as children she and her brother Bertram – who grew up to become an artist in his own right – kept a menagerie ranging from mice to bats to hedgehogs to – no surprise – rabbits. The two were sheltered growing up, only each other as playmates, educated at home by governesses. Similar to the Brontë children in their insularity breeding expressions of creativity, the two spent summer holidays at Dalguise House (Perthshire) in Scotland and, later, the Lake District of England (Cumbria).

Dalguise House, Perthshire, Scotland.

Fascinated by the natural world, they happily sketched and scribbled alongside their artistically gifted parents.

Origin of Peter Rabbit, letter to Noel Moore, 1893.
Noel Moore.

Though not published in book form until the early 1900s, Peter Rabbit’s origin lies in letters written from Potter to the children of her former governess, Annie Carter Moore. The letters began when Annie’s son, Noel, was recovering from scarlet fever. To cheer him, Beatrix sent a story based on a rabbit she’d had as a child, a Belgian buck called Peter Piper.

Many more “picture letters” followed, telling the adventures of Peter and friends. Annie Moore suggested Beatrix put the stories in book form for publication. Twenty-three books later, the Tales of Peter Rabbit were complete.

Despite the fact so much of her life was devoted to children’s literature, Beatrix and her husband had no children. She was, however, a doting aunt, as well as godmother to Beatrix Moore, daughter of Annie.

“If I have done anything, even a little, to help small children enjoy honest, simple pleasures, I have done a bit of good.” 

– Beatrix Potter

A few more interesting bits about Beatrix Potter:

  1. The inspiration for her characters unknown, in 2001 the names Nutkins, McGregor, Peter Rabbett and Jeremiah Fisher were discovered in burial records for Brompton Cemetery, London – the city where Potter grew up. Sounds like more than a coincidence, doesn’t it, especially considering she lived only a short walk away from 1863 – 1913.

Grave of Susannah Nutkins.

2. As a child, budding artist Beatrix was taken by her father to the Natural History Museum in London, as well as the Victoria & Albert, where she practiced sketching.

Accurately detailed watercolors of fungi made her well-respected in the world of mycology, and she created paintings of other flora and fauna, as well. Not content with just drawing them, Potter educated herself in the ways mushrooms reproduced, even conducting her own experiments. What stopped her from pursuing her interest further was the fact women were barred from scientific societies.

Who knows what she’d have achieved in the scientific world.

Lepitoa procera (Armitt Museum and Library) by Beatrix Potter
Drawings of caterpillars by Beatrix Potter, V&A, London

3. Previously rejecting her manuscript, Frederick Warne & Co. agreed to publish a trade edition of Peter Rabbit in 1902. By the end of the year the book had sold 28,000 copies.

Other children’s literature published that year included: L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, Kipling’s Just So Stories and E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It.

Norman Warne, son of publisher Frederick and also Beatrix’s editor, became smitten by the writer after an increasingly flirtatious exchange of letters about characters from her book Two Bad Mice. Upon their engagement, her parents objected saying Norman Warne was not her social equal. She defied them but, sadly, Warne died unexpectedly of undiagnosed leukemia before they could marry.

Out of town when he died, Beatrix didn’t make it back in time for the funeral. He was 37.

The 2006 film Miss Potter tells the sad story of Beatrix and Norman Warne. Writing about Beatrix Potter’s love of him, Sara Glenn, curator of the Warne archives states:

“Reading Beatrix’s letters, I was surprised to find that her love for Norman never died. We think of Beatrix Potter as a strong, private woman, but these letters show her intense loneliness.”

Norman Warne and his nephew Fred, ca. 1900

Having dreamt of sharing her life with Norman at Hill Top Farm in the village of Near Sawrey in the Lake District, Beatrix purchased the house and land the autumn after his death.

The flowers love the house, they try to come in. … but nothing more sweet than the old pink cabbage rose that peeps in at the small paned windows.

– Beatrix Potter, on Hill Top Farm

Ironically, Beatrix’s brother Bertram made a match that would have horrified his parents, as well, marrying Mary Welsh Scott, a former mill worker. He was astute (and confoundingly clever) enough to keep the union secret for a decade.

His father’s response when his son finally told him of his marriage? He wrote Bertram out of his will.

Difficult to like that man, isn’t it.

Beatrix, Bertram and doggo Potter.

4. Later in life, as president of the Herdwick sheep association she won prizes for Herdwick ewes at shows around Cumbria. Upon her death she bequeathed 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust, for the express purpose of sheep grazing.

Beatrix and shepherd Tom Storey, with one of her favorite Herdwick ewes, Water Lily.
Herdwick ewes!

5. On 13 October 1913, Beatrix Potter married William Heelis, a property attorney who helped her purchase land in the Lake District of England, located within the county of Cumbria, on which she would raise her beloved sheep.

In their 70s at the time of their engagement, her parents didn’t approve of this match, either. Beatrix and William married despite them, and by all accounts were happy.

Take that, mum and dad.

Beatrix Potter and William Heelis

6. Potter’s father, Rupert William Potter, was an amateur photographer and sketch artist specializing in portraits and landscapes. Photographs provided to his friend, noted landscape painter John Everett Millais, served as inspiration for the famous artist’s work. He also took photos of Millais’s sitters and portaits, which the painter used to aid him.

Though educated as a barrister, a fortune inherited from his father Edmund’s business, Dinting Vale Calico Printing Works , meant he never had to practice.

The Lake District, photo by Rupert Potter.

It was inherited money that made Beatrix’s father feel she was too good for any man. Not land and titles, but her grandfather’s inventiveness in mechanizing the manufacture of previously handmade, labor-intensive calico. Edmund Potter also believed in education for all, building the Logwood Mill School and providing a reading room and library for his factory workers.

Beatrix Potter and Alice Crompton Potter by Rupert William Potter

7. Her mother, Helen Leech Potter, was likewise no slouch as an artist.

Hilltop, Cumbria by Helen Leech Potter
Helen Leech and Beatrix Potter

Helen also kept a scrapbook of cards sent to her daughter from various relatives and friends of the Potter family, compiled between 1872 and 1878 – an invaluable collection of ephemera relating to a beloved writer.

8. Beginning at age 14, Beatrix Potter kept a coded journal. It would not be decoded until Leslie Linder, a superfan of the author who later donated an extensive collection of materials by and about the writer to the V&A Museum, cracked the code after 13 long years.

In 1966, the journal was published for the first time by Frederick Warne Ltd, the same company that had published Peter Rabbit decades ago.

Potter’s diary is full of hints at her future as an artist and writer. “I can’t settle to anything but my painting, I lost my patience over everything else,” she wrote at the end of one particularly agitated page. Plenty of entries close with the name of a book she had recently finished, or contain one of her signature, detailed, occasionally brutal art reviews.

Atlas Obscura

I admit I didn’t have much interest in Beatrix Potter until I read the dozen or so articles and online sources from which I extracted information for this post. Though we had a miniature set of the Tales of Peter Rabbit when my kids were small, the stories were too slow-moving for them.

I couldn’t have imagined she led such a fascinating life, and there are loads of books about her. I recommend you visit Amazon to check them out.

Happy Birthday, Beatrix Potter.

The Porpoise: A Novel by Mark Haddon

Originally published New York Journal of Books

The Porpoise: A Novel

Image of The Porpoise: A Novel

Author(s): Mark HaddonRelease Date: June 18, 2019Publisher/Imprint: DoubledayPages: 320Buy on Amazon         Reviewed by: Lisa Guidarini

“The writing is brilliant, building from a deceptively plain beginning few paragraphs to sophisticated prose that leaps off the page.”

Weaving a horrifying modern tale of a father’s obsessive, increasingly perverted love for his daughter into a parallel retelling of the ancient legend of King Antiochus, Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise is unrelentingly grim, an uncomfortable read.

Losing his wife Maja in a horrific plane crash caused by an amateur pilot’s bravado, Philippe is catapulted into shock. It’s inconceivable he’s lost his vivacious and beautiful former actress wife, doubly mystifying that his money could, for the first time, neither cushion him from life’s random brutality nor offer solace. Grief-stricken, he leans over a building imagining how easy it would be to let go, the prospect of death “like falling into bed.”

In his sorrow forgetting his wife had been 37 weeks pregnant, the subsequent stark realization the child had been cut from her dead mother’s belly was unbearable. He did not want the baby, could not bear to think of her. Still, she was the link that bound him to his late wife.

Unprepared for the child’s striking beauty, when they meet he’s taken aback that she looks like him—dark-skinned and exotic—rather than her fair, blonde mother. Her eyes are riveting; despite himself he’s entranced.

Understandably overprotective, Philippe imprisons his daughter in a gilded cage of wealth and privilege, ostensibly to keep her safe. As she grows older, paternal caresses turn carnal. It’s a simple enough matter replacing employees, once they begin noticing the unnatural attention he’s giving his daughter, easy to shelter her from the world—and the world from coming to her aid.

The years pass. Angelica grows graceful and beautiful, losing her childlike appearance, becoming more womanly. Allowed no television, Internet, or contact outside their home, she has no frame of reference. What her father does to her must certainly be normal. She has no reason to think otherwise.

Turning 14, the age her father’s considers “respectful” for intercourse, things begin to shift. What he does to her starts to hurt. The eyes of the servants, the looks on their faces, begin to make sense. She starts to get it: Her father’s attentions are unnatural.

It isn’t until a handsome young man comes to visit, bringing artwork he knows Philippe covets as an excuse to gain entrance and have a look at the fabled beautiful daughter, that Angelica has the opportunity to appeal to an outsider with the power to help. Within moments, he sees through the charade.

He invites the girl on a drive and is intent on rescuing her, but Angelica’s desperation to get away catches her father’s attention. He grows agitated. Sensing the futility, the young man retreats for the moment. Later making another effort, Philippe catches him, raining down holy hell. In the ensuing violence, the young man is injured, nearly killed, chased away.

Angelica’s only hope gone, she slides into despair. Though it hardly seems possible, the story becomes ever darker. There will be no redemption.

Haddon bases his novel on the story of a king who offers the hand of his beautiful daughter to any man who can solve a riddle, the answer revealing King Antiochus is having an incestuous affair with his child. Enter Pericles, the valiant and very clever suitor. The answer to the riddle obvious to him, he senses admitting that will put his life in danger.

Antiochus has no intention of letting his daughter go. When Pericles asks for a few days to mull over the answer, the king sees through the ruse. He grants the young man 40 days in a show of fairness; as Pericles gallops toward home an assassin follows close on his heels.

Alternating between a contemporary storyline and the myth inspiring it, at first the swings back and forth feel smooth. Kept balanced, it’s easily navigated. However, as the book progresses and Haddon extends the Pericles sections longer and longer, the interruptions become intrusive, breaking the narrative spell. It’s as if The Porpoise is made up of two entirely different books forced together, in a rather ungainly way. Had it been better balanced throughout, perhaps the effect could have been more satisfying.

By turns riveting and repulsive, the sickening story of a father’s descent into an incestuous relationship with his daughter is the more compelling narrative: difficult to read, yet impossible to put down. The story of Pericles, just as skillfully written, cannot quite keep up. The ever-lengthening fable begins to feel interminable, such is the power of Angelica’s pull.

The writing is brilliant, building from a deceptively plain beginning few paragraphs to sophisticated prose that leaps off the page. The Porpoise remains unbalanced, yet the end of Angelica’s story is epic Greek tragedy. Haddon pulls the columns from the temple, buckling the walls, the crashing stones crushing the life from his characters. The reader stands in awe, squinting through and covered with the dust, as the curtain falls.

In its crushing power The Porpoise is ultimately redeemed.

The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrong

Gallery Books (April 23, 2019)

That’s another thing that people don’t understand about depression: we don’t want to take a shower, we don’t know why we feel this way, and even if we did, it wouldn’t make us stop feeling this way. We have lost all interest in doing anyting, especially anything that once brought us joy – because that thing will bring us joy, and we can’t bear the meaning of that.

  • Valedictorian of Being Dead

If you’re thinking this kind of book isn’t my normal fare, you’d be mostly right.

I’ve been a fan of Heather’s hugely popular blog Dooce nearly a decade, give or take. Fired from her corporate job for taking hilarious – though unappreciated – jabs at co-workers, originally she was just a snarky, damn funny writer.

After marrying and having a baby, she graduated to “mommy blogger”, going stratospheric. With her uber-honest writing about everything from the ups and downs of pregnancy (including particularly memorable sharing about constipation) to stunning photography and monthly love letters to her child, Leta, she shot up the ranks becoming one of the top 25 most influential blogs on Time magazine’s list.

Years later, dooce is still going strong, a highly personal and often funny account of parenthood, pregnancy, struggles with depression and cancer, and life as a former Mormon living among Mormons. Dooce’s strength is its unflinching honesty.

  • Time, 2009

After the publication of her first book about crippling depression, a local Chicago paper found Bluestalking – which had garnered attention through mention in The New York Times, a book about literary blogs, and winning a couple lit blog awards – and wanted to interview me about the reasons I wrote, and how it related to mental health. So, when Heather announced she was in the process of writing a book about an experimental treatment aimed at drug-resistant depression, I made time for it.

The Valedictorian of Being Dead describes in depth how and why a team of medical professionals took her brain function to near zero, then essentially brought her back life, in an effort to reset her brain. Related to ECT, this new therapy is thought to have less side effects, though it’s so new long-term data isn’t yet available.

It has so far worked for Heather, which is encouraging. She no longer wishes she were dead. Sounds like a victory to me.

Characteristic of the honesty and thoroughness of her writing, it’s not a straight relation of medical facts. Heather talks about the history of her depression, its impact on her children and family, and the evolution of dooce.com. She also opens up about her marriage, and the reasons for its demise.

Not as well written as I’d hoped, it was worth reading both for its explanation of this fascinating new treatment and further honest revelations about her life. I overlooked how over-written it is, occasionally cringe-worthily so. Though we’ve met and interacted only briefly, like millions of other readers of her blog I’m fond of Heather, and identify with what she’s been through.

It won’t make the shelf of iconic memoirs relating battles with mental ilness. It’s no Darkness Visible or The Noonday Demon, but fans of dooce.com will appreciate hearing this part of her story. Likewise, those battling depression unresponsive to traditional treatments may find hope knowing doctors are pioneering new approaches.

2019 so far: a recap

2019 marks the fourth anniversary of my divorce. I’d like to say I’ve settled into the next chaper of life, but in lots of ways I really haven’t.

The best part of post-marriage is the weight of a 25-year incompatible relationship falling off my shoulders. I chose a man who was steady and a good provider, knew his way around car and home maintenance, and could fix my computer- very practical things, if not terribly romantic.

Make that not at all romantic. See that red flag waving? So did we, but chose to ignore it.

We really didn’t like each other. He’s extraordinarily intelligent, but cold and inflexible, quick to anger, and lacking empathy. His life lacks passion; I pity that.

My dreamy, artsy, laissez-faire personality irritated the living hell out of him. I refused to take little things seriously, parented too liberally, and chose reading over house cleaning.

Opposites may attract, but without mutual respect and a core connection it’s unsustainable. Post-divorce we’re able to get along on a superficial level, civil and friendly. The kids will always connect us, but we’re so much happier apart.

Divorce has meant the freedom to make my own decisions – some wildly, epically irrational, most eccentric but basically safe. I look at him and think dear god, your life is so safe and boring. I take risks, unafraid of falling on my face. He’ll always take life far too seriously.

Fast-forward to 2019, and I’m living in my fifth home. Spending two years in my first rental, my crazy edventurous nature reared its head when I took off to live with – and potentially marry – a friend in Scotland. Back in the States a year, for the second time I sold off or stored all my stuff, moving back to the UK.

Sitting here in my third over-prized suburban Chicago apartment, I have loads of weird – though wildly magical – memories, and absolutely no regrets, but feel rootless. Restless since crawling out from under the constraints of marriage, all that flirting with life as an ex-pat cured my wanderlust.

I want to be anchored, settled in one place, and steady. I want to belong, in ways I haven’t for a long time. I own that I’m partially feral, but the part of me that’s domesticated is damned tired of being alone.

In one staggering way I’ll get to shortly, I didn’t see 2019 coming. Accustomed to serendipitous surprises, I’d have been disappointed otherwise. The process of nesting I anticipated, and I love my little place. Already over-crowded with stuff, it’s not Ikea perfect like my Pinterest board, but I accept it’s a work in progress.

Professionally, I’m in flux. My current day job is stable, but unsatisfying. A creative idea generator with a penchant for – brace yourselves – writing, there’s little call for my skill set in this environment. On the other hand, fast-paced, intricately complex work in finance has honed all new skill sets I never dreamed I’d have. After four years I’m crazy good at multi-tasking, agile and comfortable navigating two screens full of databases while listening to and empathizing with clients. As experience goes, it’s valuable.

If creativity remains an avocation, I’ll try to come to terms. But I’m not giving up.

Romantically, 2019’s taken my breath away. Back in the States less than two months, I decided what the hell, life’s had some stray slow moments. Let’s dip a toe in the water and stir things up. I’ve dated pretty extensively in four years, between two marriage close calls. I’ve both made some good friends and experienced staggering weirdness, and was ready to close up shop again one date before fate stepped in.

Maybe that’s just the way it happens. When you’re just about the close the door, life says hold my beer and dig this.

The One. Him. The synchronicity of two fated souls meeting.

I’m not overstating; I do nothing by halves.

I suspected it from our first date, knew it not long after. In a few days we’ll hit five months, but I’m not going into a lot of detail now. Plenty of time for that. No update of 2019 could go without mention of it, no other change in my life as profound.

All the rest of it – the reading, the writing, the vagaries of existence, etc., etc. – will come out in time. Dynamic and shifting in so many ways, in this I’m beginning to take root. I don’t believe in a god or divine plan, but when I threw it out there that I’m ready, life said okay, how about I surpass all expectations?

I can’t explain how it happened, but I don’t expect life to provide answers. It’s real and it’s thriving and I’m no fool.

I’m going to run with it.

It’s passed the middle of 2019. I’ve learned around the corner surprises lie, and this year has proved no exception. I have hopes for the future, very specific ones. Patience isn’t my strong suit, but I’m not without diversions to work on in the meantime.

It’s headed in the right direction. And I’ll take it.

Good lord, is that the time?

You know you’ve been away from your blog a very long time when you not only cannot recall your password, but can’t even find the bloody website. I started typing T-Y-P-E-P-A…. then recalled I haven’t been hosted by Typepad for at least a decade.

Typepad? Really? What’s next, aol.com?

I dropped off the face of the blog around the time WordPress changed its format, because I really do despise it. If I’d worked with it a bit longer before trotting off in a huff, perhaps it would be comfortable and familiar by now. As it is, I’m sitting here feeling quite annoyed I can’t even find the scroll bar.

WHERE IS THE SCROLL BAR.

Nothing is where it’s supposed to be. WHERE ARE ALL THE THINGS.

All this to say I can’t use the “I’m still settling in after returning to the States” excuse anymore if I’ve been back six months. Good effort, but it’s worn thin, like “I’m still carrying the baby weight” when you baby is 21. I’m also not supposed to be writing this sort of apology for my absence, according to my career coach, but I’m flying in the face of all that professional nonsense because, drat it, I OWE YOU THAT. All of you who’ve been around a while, I mean. Who’ve stuck with me through lots of nonsense over the past dozen plus years.

You know who you are. And I love you for it.

What I’m supposed to be doing is posting book reviews and generating interesting original content. More interesting than whining, which interests me and me alone. It’s self-indulgent, counter-productive and lots of other hyphenated words and phrases. I fully realize that.

I just needed to get this out of the way. I needed a placeholder, I don’t care what anyone says. Something to say yes, there was a gap, but I’ve been off in the world doing worldly things. I’ve not been slacking off in the slightest, and slapping up a book review published elsewhere without a word of explanation just seems silly.

That’s out of the way, and thank goodness for it. My palate’s cleansed, I’ve acknowledged my sins, and I can resume regular programming.

Also, I found the scroll bar.

Now we can all rest happily.

An interview with former poet laureate Billy Collins

Interview With Poet Laureate Billy Collins

Billy Collins

I had the pleasure of interviewing former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins via telephone. Mr. Collins served two terms as Poet Laureate, from 2001 – 2003. He was also selected as New York State Poet for 2004.

Billy Collins has published several collections of poetry (bibliography below, from wikipedia.com), and he’s been included in many anthologies.

LG: Were you an avid reader as a child? What were your favorite books?

BC: I was not only an avid reader but I used to pretend to read before I could read. I was an only child and that lead to a very rich reading life. When my parents would have people over I would pretend to be reading. I would have an encyclopedia on my lap and I’d pretend to be reading it. I knew which way to turn it because of the pictures.

Later, when I was able to read, I read all the Hardy boys, and the Albert Payson Terhune books about Lad and Lassie. They’re basically all the same story, with the names changed. I read Black Beauty and The Yearling. Those I read a number of times and had them read to me.

My parents didn’t have a TV until everyone else had a TV. We had the collected Dickens in the house, and my mother said, half-jokingly, if I read all of Dickens we could get a TV. I didn’t read all of Dickens.

Mother Goose is the original inspiration for all poets. That’s where they get an idea of rhythm and rhyme. My mother had memorized a lot of poetry as a schoolgirl. She went to a rural school in Ontario, Canada. She housed hundreds and hundreds of lines of poetry. If any occasion arose she’d have a few lines of poetry about it.

LG: When did you start writing poetry?

BC: I don’t think anyone escapes childhood, or adolescence, without writing some really horrible, usually lovesick, poetry, poems of a misunderstood adolescent who was convinced no one in the course of history had ever felt this way before.

I didn’t write my first book until I was in my 40s. It took me a long time to figure it out, or find my voice, or combine these different influences so it sounded like me. I was writing all along, kind of on the side. I went to grad school and began teaching literature in college. I’ve been doing that most of my life. I used to be a professor who wrote poetry. Now I’m a poet who happens to be a professor.

LG: How many hours a day do you write? Do you keep a strict schedule?

BC: I have no work habits whatsoever. I don’t write every day, so often it would be zero hours per day. I kind of hold onto a romantic view. People say in order to be a writer you have to write all the time. The poem will come along when it arrives. I try to be on the lookout for creative opportunities, something that might trigger a poem, but I don’t sit down in the morning and try to commit an act of literature before lunch.

LG: That sounds a lot different than writing fiction.

BC: It is very different from fiction writing. As Hemingway said you always knock off for the day in the middle of a scene, but poets have to restart themselves all the time. Poets return much more often to the blank page.

I heard about a survey once, the results of which are poets are more inclined to suicide because of the anxiety of starting afresh. Depression visits poets more frequently. You can write a lyric poem in a couple of hours. You don’t know if the next poem will start the next hour or a month from now. Poetry’s known for its brevity, but that’s also the bad news for writers.

LG: Do you do a lot of re-writing?

BC: Less and less. I try to make it right the first time. The conceptual journey of the poetry is all done in one sitting, from beginning to middle to end. I hardly ever change the movement of the poem as it navigates itself. What I do change are matters of rhythm and sound, finding an adjective. But I never go back and say this is all wrong.

LG: Do you write on the computer or longhand?

BC: I write with a pencil, always longhand. I make a mess and scratch things out. A pencil seems very fluid. I put it on the computer at the very last minute, when I think it’s done. On the computer it looks fixed in place and it’s pretty much done. When you put it on a computer you see what it looks like. The look of prose is irrelevant, but the poem has a shape to it which is the result of line breaks and stanza breaks, so you can see what you couldn’t see with the pencil. Shapeliness is one of the attractive aspects of poetry. When I get it on the screen I do some shaping to make it look right.

LG: Do any other genres, besides poetry, appeal to you?

BC: Not really. I think it’s sort of like in music. It’s enough to be able to play one fairly well. That’s the question musicians never get, do you play any other instruments.

I write some prose, I write essays on poetry. Criticism. I wouldn’t know what I was doing if I wrote a short story.

LG: What writers have influenced you the most?

BC: That’s a tough question. There are too many to name. It’s not even clear the degree of influence. Often people will spout names like Yeats, Coleridge, etc., but I think these are flags of convenience. It’s hard to think of something that hasn’t influenced me, positively or negatively.

I’ve taught literature in college for so many years. Every semester I re-read Emily Dickinson, Wordsworth, Marvel. I read them all semester after semester.

What I think of as an influence is a poet who makes you jealous. It’s a polite way of saying other writers inflame you with jealousy. Driven by a jealous rage you go off and try to write something like that, or try to steal from them in order to exact revenge.

LG: I’ve read that you consider your poetry to be “hospitable,” which some refer to as accessible. How do you distinguish between hospitable and poetry that’s considered difficult or obscure?

BC: I think I discovered that you can write clearly in clear language and still have access to areas of great mystery. To write doesn’t mean to get stuck on a literal level. There are poets who follow etiquette. I write in sentences. I use standard punctuation, beginning with a standard note the reader can identify with. Once that engagement is made the poet can head off in less familiar directions and take the reader on an imaginative journey in which the writer doesn’t know where he’s going.

A poem begins in clarity and ends in mystery, if a poet is able to understand that distinction and knows when to be clear and when to be mysterious. It’s important to know which cards to turn over, and which to leave face down. In the worst poetry all the cards are face down.

LG: Aside from writing, what are your pastimes?

BC: I play the piano. I have a dog I’m obsessed with.

LG: What kind of dog?

BC: She’s a mutt, mostly collie. It goes back to those Albert Payson Terhune books. I live in New York City, on the Hudson River in the Village. That’s a good opportunity for walking.

LG: What projects are you working on currently?

BC: I’m finishing a manuscript but I don’t know if it’s done yet. I think the publisher would like it but I’m not sure it’s ready. I don’t want to rush it into print. I don’t know how many aces I have.

LG: What advice would you give to aspiring poets?

BC: That goes back to that influence question. Just read. Find poets that make you jealous. The only hope you have in what would be called originality is through a process of imitation. It’s a matter of getting rid of the young poet’s delusion that your experiences are so original that you’re going to announce this in original language. What inspires poetry is poetry. It’s not the muse. It’s not nature. It’s not emotion. It’s other poetry that inspires poetry. When you write poetry you’re adding your voice to this long historic voice. You need to listen to these for a long time before you even know what your voice would possibly add. Read widely and quickly. Don’t waste your time on poetry that doesn’t talk to you.

LG: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

BC: Thank you.

Special thanks to Steven Barclay, of Steven Barclay Agency, for putting me in touch with Mr. Collins, and to Billy Collins, for his generosity in granting the interview.