Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Drinking From a Bitter Cup by Angela Jackson-Brown

Drinking From a Bitter Cup by Angela Jackson-Brown is the author’s debut novel that came out in 2014. Set in the late ’70s/early ’80s in Louisville, KY before switching to rural Alabama, the story is about Sylvia Butler. The story begins when she is 10 years old and living in Louisville with her mentally ill and alcoholic mother. They are poor and Sylvia has no friends except her mother, a neighbor, Miss Cora, and her mother’s sometimes-boyfriend Uncle Ray. Her life is incredibly rough yet it isn’t lacking in love and Sylvia thrives academically.

Unfortunately Sylvia’s life is about to become more difficult as her mother’s mental illness is accelerated by an unexpected death. Shortly thereafter her mother gives up completely and kills herself by overdosing on sleeping pills. A few days after her mother dies Sylvia is introduced to her father whom she only has seen through a picture her mother kept tucked away. Her father had no idea Sylvia existed until contacted by Miss Cora per the instructions Sylvia’s mother left behind.

The day after the funeral Sylvia is whisked away to Alabama and is immediately resented by her father’s wife. Mother Viv, as she makes Sylvia refer to her, is so angry with her father for cheating on her that instead of hashing it out with her husband, she takes it out on Sylvia. Her father does his best to get to know and love Sylvia and for the first time in her life, she has an extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins, in addition to financial stability. With the exception of Mother Viv, her life improves drastically. But this brief period doesn’t last as tragedy once again strikes Sylvia with even more horrible consequences.

In addition to the prose, the strength of Drinking From a Bitter Cup is Sylvia. She is a smart, brave, and compassionate person. One of those people that you don’t want anything bad to happen to because they don’t deserve it. And yet the bad keeps getting piled onto Sylvia. She doesn’t need any more tests in life because by the time the book ends, she’s already gone through a lifetime of them. From the start you immediately root for her and just want to hug her and keep her close. It’s also clear she is a realist and has learned early on to rely mostly on herself. It doesn’t help that many of the adults around her hurt her in some way.

Ms. Jackson-Brown does a solid job developing all the characters including the two main villains of Mother Viv and Uncle Charles. While they are horrible people, one more so than the other, they aren’t not written as one-dimensional. It’s hard to empathize with them and they are the kind of people you’d like to scream at for being cruel to a child.

I also liked how the author brings ups such complicated issues such as untreated mental illness, poverty, death, religious belief, and various forms of abuse. Because of its setting both in time and place, those issues are a reminder to the reader that society still struggles with how to handle those issues. In some areas we’ve gotten better and more understanding, but in others we’re still failing.

One thing I thought was interesting was Ms. Jackson-Brown’s usage of symbolism. The big symbol in the book is The Wizard of Oz movie. Sylvia and her mother both loved it and the themes in the movie help support what happens in the book. From the idea of what is home to what is family to reality vs. fantasy are all touched upon. For example, one of Sylvia’s favorite memories of her mother is how they would dress up as characters from the movie and act scenes out at home. Yet those happy times of living in a fantasy world are contrasted with harsh realities of Sylvia’s mother’s depression.

Another symbol, one that is more explicitly discussed between characters, is her mother’s bed. Her mother tells her it’s where she was conceived and it’s also where her mother died. Once Sylvia inherits it becomes the scene of a lot of horrible, ugly tragedy. Yet somehow it is looked upon as a place where Sylvia will also conceive her own children and comfort them at night. I wasn’t completely onboard with that connection because it does stand for the extreme dichotomies in Sylvia’s life.

While I enjoyed the book, the one thing I didn’t care for was the ending. It’s rushed and although at least one of the villains gets it in the end, for once I’m not completely okay with a book ending on ambiguity. Normally I like open endings since I enjoy speculating and life rarely has clean, definitive endings. In Drinking From a Bitter Cup it is definitely left up to the reader to decide if Sylvia’s rosy outlook, almost bordering on delusional, on life is justified. I’m of the opinion it isn’t and I can see the cycle being repeated. I guess that’s why I have a problem with it. It saddens me to think of this very special person being stuck when she has kind of personality to break it. The ending also disappoints me because the author uses a plot device I cannot stand and think is cheap and overused. I can’t state what it is since that gives away part of the ending.

Drinking From a Bitter Cup is one of those books that is incredibly difficult to read because it pulls out of the reader all kinds of emotions. Overall I give it 4 pencils out of 5. It’s very gut-wrenching and one to be read with a box of Kleenex nearby.

Weekly Musing: 5 Words or Less

I found this idea for a blog post months ago when I was struggling to come up with topic ideas. I must admit this one is difficult for me for a couple of reasons. It’s difficult for me to condense my thoughts. You’d be surprised how long the rough drafts of these posts are. The second reason this is difficult for me because it’s always been difficult for me to narrow down what my favorite book and character are. After much thinking I realized I still can’t pick one.

The point of this rambling post is to describe myself, my favorite book, and my favorite character in 5 words or less. Okay, here we go.

Myself – Um, can we move onto the next question?

My Favorite Book – Changes, but I respond to theme of isolation the best.

My Favorite Character – Don’t have one but my favorites are people who don’t fit the norm.

Yup, can’t keep it to 5 words or less.

Weekly Musing: Reference This

In the past I’ve talked about a variety of resources I found helpful at the time. Re-reading it I realized how much my idea of what is useful has changed. Some of the tools I listed I no longer use. Either outgrew them or decided to try others.

One of the biggest changes has been in the kinds of books I consider to be valuable reference materials. I’ve expanded my scope beyond grammar and editing books to books on such topics as superstitions, what various traumas to the body actually look like, to how to better write emotions. No matter what genre you write, be it general fiction, mystery, fantasy, historical fiction, etc. below I’ve listed a few books I think every write should have on the bookshelf.

Story Elements and Novel Writing – Writer’s Digest produces several books on story elements.  These are great for strengthening your strengths and providing help on weaker areas. For example, I think my biggest strength is dialogue yet I still have a book on it. I also have a book on characters, emotions, and viewpoint. Never know when characters might start sounding alike or when I struggle to find the right “voice” for a character.

What I personally focus on is having multiple books on my weak areas. For me I believe that it is setting and descriptions as well as plot and structure. I struggle to translate the world and people I see in my head onto paper. Also, since I consider myself more character-driven, making sure the plot makes sense and has scenes that support it I struggle with.

I think every writer should have at least one book on beginnings, middles, and endings since very few writers, if any, are proficient in all three. I think it’s also great to have a book on these since I see so much emphasis placed on the first sentence, opening chapter, or first 50 pages that it’s no wonder books fall apart in the middle and sputter to an end. If we want our readers to keep coming back we need to look at our manuscripts as a whole.

And like any writer, I have a few books on how to write a novel. There’s an overwhelming amount of books out there. Some claim you can write a draft of one in as little as a month, others set more realistic goals (unless you’re slow like me) of 90 days. Still others focus on how to write the kind of novel that will get people’s attention. I decided to go with a couple because too much information can be a bad thing.

Emotions and Personality Types – I was naturally born with a gift/curse to empathize with both real and fictional people. In my head and heart their emotions tend to be felt as much as if they were my own. Yet I frequently struggle to set those emotions on paper. This makes me feel as if I’m not doing the characters justice.

I heard about a book called The Emotion Thesaurus via an article. What I really appreciate about this book and the subsequent follow-ups The Negative Emotion Thesaurus and The Positive Emotion Thesaurus is that they aim to help writers get out of the rut of describing the same emotions in the same way. In the original book the authors include physical signs, what a particular emotion feels like internally, and mental responses to name a few of the categories. In the two follow up books they take things further. They include associated thoughts, behaviors and attitudes, related secondary emotions, positive and negative aspects, and even examples from TV and film.

Another book I’ve found useful is the Writer’s Guide to Character Traits. Unlike the emotion thesaurus series, this books provides deeper analysis. In addition to listing various personality types, the author offers how personality differs in children and adolescent. Other features which appeal to me are discussions on psychological disorders, criminal types, creating a family, and love, marriage and other kinds of relationships.

The Human Body – I’m not necessarily referring to having Grey’s Anatomy nearby, but I do think it is important to have books dealing with the human body. For example, I have a book on poisons, body trauma, and more than a few books on weapons. Although not quite related, I even have a book on survival. Never know when a character will wind up on their own in the woods or desert or ocean.

If you think only crime and mystery writers need these kinds of books, think about this way. Say you write historical fiction and have a scene involving a battle. The time period dictates the weapons and equipment involved, but you’ll want to make sure injuries and deaths inflicted are plausible.

Or if you write fantasy, perhaps the book on poisons can be of use. Maybe your protagonist likes to coat a particular kind his or her weapon of choice. What would using poison plus their weapon of choice due to a body? Again, having a book on body trauma can be helpful for describing the wound.

Myths, Symbols, Superstitions, and Legends – Again, no matter what genre you write in, why not consider adding a few of these books? While I’ve yet to use my books on superstitions, symbols and signs, and mythology, I feel they are valuable. Who knows, maybe I could have a character obsessed with Nordic mythology who uses it guide his or her life.

Think only fantasy or horror writers would benefit from these? Think of it like this. Say you write mystery. Perhaps the bad person leaves behind a series of symbols. Maybe instead of using the most recognizable symbols in your country, you cast your net wider and look to another part of the world. What does this say about the antagonist? Is he or she from that area? A person obsessed with the culture? How do you go about narrowing your field of suspects? Maybe your cast includes an archeologist who has worked in that region, an anthropologist specializing in that culture, and a native of that region. Maybe the real culprit is none of them and is someone who wants to frame one of those people for an unrelated personal reason.

 

Having a variety of reference books beyond the usual writerly ones is a great way to get inspired. If you’re stuck in your story, consider perusing through a book of superstitions. Or when you’re editing and want a better way to describe a character being sad. Grab your books on emotions. Not only does it add more realism, it can make our work more interesting and unique. And you don’t need a ton of books to help you. All the books I listed are condensed and brief, general information. Many of these are geared toward writers and are easy to understand. Their just jumping off points and can be used in conjunction with websites and other books.