As a writer, teacher and columnist for AfterEllen.com, I am constantly reading. I feature three titles a month for Across the Page, which means that more often than not I give away the book I’ve reviewed to a friend or student or put it on my Brooklyn stoop with a “Please take!” sign. I have a box of books I’ll soon send to Chely Wright’s Like Me® Lighthouse (check out the website if you have extra books to donate to their growing library). It’s rare that I keep a book I’ve reviewed — not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because of space.
This month’s column, however, features three books that will find a home on my already overcrowded bookshelf: Jeanette Winterson’s new memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?; Barb Johnson’s collection of interconnected short stories, More of This World or Maybe Another; and Ana Božičević’s chapbook War on a Lunchbreak.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (Grove Press)
If you haven’t heard of Jeanette Winterson then you are either new to this column or I have failed at my job. Born in Manchester, England, in 1959, Winterson is the acclaimed author of several novels, including her debut Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, The Passion (my favorite), Sexing the Cherry and Written on the Body.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, published when Winterson was in her twenties and winner of the prestigious Orange Prize, is about a young girl adopted into a family of Pentecostal evangelists. The novel is based on Winterson’s own life and captures her struggle to fit in with her adoptive family — especially when, as a teenager, she falls in love with another girl.
Winterson’s latest book Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir that tells the real story behind Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. And, as is often the case, the truth is stranger than fiction. The memoir begins with a powerful line that shadows the rest of the narrative: “When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, ‘The Devil led us to the wrong crib.’”
Winterson spent most of her life feeling unwanted and like a mistake — both with her birth mother, who gave her up for adoption, and with her adopted mother, who believed she should have adopted another child — one, presumably, in the “other crib” at the orphanage.
As with Winterson’s other work, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is told in fragmented vignettes that hold together through the lyricism of Winterson’s language and her ability to connect the abstract to the concrete. “Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be,” Winterson says, “there is a an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives.”
Winterson reevaluates her life through the lens of this absence — and she understands that “the missing part, the missing past, can be an opening, not a void.” Or, as she learns, it can be both an opening and a void. As she revisits the past, Winterson shows us how she attempted to fill the void (with love and violence — often present at the same time — or literature and friendship) and to find the opening (through forgiving both her adoptive and birth mother and in finding a love that she could trust).
The title of the book comes from an exchange between Winterson and her adopted mother. When her mother asks her why she wants to be intimate with another woman, Winterson explains, “When I am with her I am happy. Just happy.” The response — “Why be happy when you could be normal?’ — reveals as much about the mother’s perspective as it does Winterson’s strength to live her own life.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a story of survival. It is a story about art, love, family, madness and identity. A must read.
More of This World or Maybe Another by Barb Johnson (Harper Perennial)
Barb Johnson’s first collection of interconnected short stories, More of This World or Maybe Another, is a smart, engaging and highly impressive book. The stories feature four characters — Delia, Dooley, Pudge and Luis — and take place over several years in New Orleans.
The title story, “More of This World or Maybe Another,” is a brilliant and close look at Delia as a closeted high school student. She is trying to figure out why she is not interested in spending time with her cute and popular date, a boy named Calvin, and instead would rather smoke a joint in the car with Chuck (Charlene), his beautiful tomboy sister.
Johnson’s writing is clear and original — particularly in capturing Delia’s early confusion and conflict over her feelings: “The sight of Chuck’s bare thighs gives Delia a feeling like lying, a blast of adrenaline that dissolves in a pool of guilt.”
In another story, “Keeping her Difficult Balance,” we meet up with Delia again. This time she is running her own Laundromat and engaged to Calvin. When a woman named Maggie invites them to a fish fry, Delia is again forced to acknowledge her attraction to women: “It’s when their cheeks touch, when Delia’s hand slips smoothly around Maggie’s waist, that Delia begins to worry that she likes it, the touching.”
Dooley is Delia’s brother. He is lost and layered and in the story “Killer Heart” he makes a tragic mistake that changes his life forever. Johnson’s range in voice is impressive and the stories featuring Pudge are packed with sadness, energy and urgency. The reader knows Pudge as the down and out drunk who works at Delia’s Laundromat, but in stories like “Titty Baby” we see Pudge as a young boy trying to protect himself, his younger sister and his mother from an abusive and unstable father.
Though the stories in More of This World or Maybe Another are connected through character and place, they also stand on their own. This is Johnson’s first book and I look forward to reading more.
War on a Lunchbreak by Ana Božičević (Belladonna)
War on a Lunchbreak is a short and stirring collection by Croatian American poet Ana Božičević. In language that is fresh, quick and inspired, the poems here tackle contemporary questions and struggles of war, consumerism, racial and gender inequality, and relationships.
The title poem, “War on a Lunchbreak” posses a direct and open ended question: “What is war?” Božičević unpacks the question through a series of images and challenges others (reader included) to consider the possible answer. In the end, the narrator returns to a place of uncertainty — but it is an uncertainty that she can articulate:
I don’t know how to end this:
A fadout on the grass? A copout.
Something a sexy girl poet would say, like
“The terrorists have won, kiss me awake”—
encore, cock your boot, show us your boobs!
I’m so f**king tired of the sound of “sexy”
of me being sexy, muse-body
with ship-launch face:
I can’t read because I’m dying, that’s the truth,
I’d rather take in this sunlight like a dog.
You theorize your own way out of this paper bag.
I feel the sunlight but I keep asking why.
Other poems that standout in War on a Lunchbreak include “A Poem for You” — a meditation on inspiration. In the poem, the narrator speaks of wanting to write a poem “that my father would finally like” or “even Mom would understand” or “for all you straight girls,” but that is impossible — “I have to learn to write about just living.”
Božičević’s first collection, Stars of the Night Commute, came out in 2009 and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in Poetry. She and her partner, fellow poet Amy King, co-edit the journal Esque.