A Review of Cassandra Kircher’s Far Flung

July 25, 2019 § 1 Comment

far flung coverBy Christine Byl

Don’t judge Far Flung: Improvisations on National Parks, Driving to Russia, Not Marrying a Ranger, the Language of Heartbreak, and Other Natural Disasters by its cover. Or by its playful subtitle, or its slim profile. A jaunty cover and jacket copy might imply Cassandra Kircher’s first collection of essays is breezy, travel-focused and quick to digest, but the opening essay unveils a darker and more nuanced book. Kircher’s essays spring from and interrogate her experience in wild places, first as a kid in a camping family, later as the first female patrol ranger in a remote district of Rocky Mountain National Park. Kircher’s book is no easy roam through feel-good girl-power woods narratives. She traverses complicated terrain: a wounded family, the limits of her own empowerment, and the complexities of human adventuring.

Thank God for that! If I see one more woman-in-nature book praised as “badass” or focused on “living the dream,” I may give up reading them altogether. As a trail designer, mountain traveler, and wildlands addict, I am in many ways the ideal audience for this genre. But I’m also a tough critic. I have a low tolerance for nature writing that falls flat, gets mired in cliché, or reads more enamored of self than world. And enough with the badass trope, which turns every triumph or effort into a gender performance instead of an experience. Why can’t we just be women, throwing ourselves into the world? Kircher shows us we can.

Yes, the book covers road trips, Park Service jobs, and weeks at remote cabins, but also gives us essays on the draw of the back-country garbage pile, or “National Parks deaths” (“fall from rock during night,” “disappeared in snowstorm”). I found the book’s most interesting journey the one into the depths of a family with a depressive, mercurial but loving father. The relationship between parent and child and of both to nature, recurs throughout the essays, sometimes the focus, other times a refractive lens. This subtle choice anchors the collection with a through-line both relevant and moving: “There is, I suspect now as I move along the trail, a way that nature can make you strong enough to survive a father like mine.”

Any successful book is built on good prose; Kircher’s is inventive and supple, not over-written. About waking up on a childhood camping trip she writes, “The next morning my body feels the lines on the air mattress, and I smell earth and canvas. The sun is gold and awake.” As an adult, she drives with her father across a frozen lake and thinks, “At that point my heart will acknowledge the weight that has been handed down to me. It’s a weight that could crack any surface, still pull me under.”

Kircher’s gaze is also outward; she invites other thinkers and doers into her essays, many of them notable women, from Agnes Vaille, the first female summitter of Longs Peak, to Joan Didion, writing on the Hoover Dam, as well as E.B. White, Virginia Woolf, and John Muir. A certain pragmatism runs through as well; she tells us the best ways to remove trash from a firepit or how to call in a fatality on the radio, her insider’s view showing us park as workplace, not just respite.

So many books about epic adventures fail to capture a place’s specificity. Plants and animals and weather become generic backdrop instead of its truest inhabitants. Kircher paints her set with the exactness of the high Rockies and the lake-pocked Midwest: “the darkening color of the gray-green Engelmann spruce”; and lightning—“it’s quick: a wide line of neon fire so close I can’t see it.” As a resident of the subarctic and an ardent fan of tundra plants, I underlined this passage: “It’s no rural legend that alpine flora grows in slow motion. Dwarf willows a few inches tall may be over a hundred years old. Lichens scraped away by a boot take three decades to grow back. The tundra is old fashioned and naked. Wiser than any rain forest. More delicate than fine china.” Hers is a deep, considered literacy.

We are all drawn to books whose details overlap our own experiences, and this one does for me. When Kircher arrives at a favorite backcountry spot, she “feel(s) as if I’m hooked back into a web where everything fits.” I know exactly what she means. But I also love books that resonate across vast differences. My father is not a brooding presence in my backstory. I don’t have adopted children. Sarcastic and antsy, I was never “park ranger material,” and stuck to the trail crew, mostly invisible. No matter. The essays that diverged from my immediate experience drew me in with equal pull, showcasing how a nuanced narrative invites universality.

Whatever your overlap of background is with hers, Kircher is an inviting guide. Absent ego, she is not interested in grand views or bragging rights, but in the ground, stable and shaky, where fathers, bears, and all the rest of us, make a stand.

Christine Byl is the author of Dirt Work: An Education in the Woodsa finalist for the 2014 Willa Award in nonfictionHer prose has appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, The Sun, Crazyhorse, and other journals. She lives in Interior Alaska.

The Power of Small Journeys

November 3, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Jeanne Bonner

I wasn’t visiting Manhattan to discover the tiny waterfall park on 51st Street, or the set of hidden stairs off Beekman Place leading to the East River.

No, I’d gone there in August for a research fellowship at the New York Public Library.

But stumbling upon the waterfall on my first night in town (and later the hidden staircase), I felt as though I’d never been to New York before, and this discovery was a reward for making the journey. The wall of water appears to spill from an apartment terrace overhead, bestowing the quiet of the woods on a busy corner of Midtown Manhattan.

Other things that sparked my interest during the trip: the art deco GE building on Lexington Avenue whose spires in the form of lightning bolts are aimed at celebrating the power of electricity and the petanque players I observed one day in Bryant Park who appeared to have arrived directly from France that morning. The public library’s main branch on 42nd Street is, of course, exquisite in its own right: the frescoed-ceilings in the main reading room are so ethereal they seem to be not just from another era, but the temporal equivalent of another planet.

Walking from my hotel to the library each day, I marveled over the variety of observations emerging from the same route done different ways. I had to walk eight blocks south and three avenues over, and each time I did so, I’d invent a new route: two blocks down, then one avenue over, now six blocks further south and two avenues over. The next time, I might walk four blocks south, and two avenues over, followed by four more blocks south, and so forth.

And it wasn’t long before I got that feeling, that urge. The urge to record my observations. In other words: The need to write.

Change of scenery, change of energy.

The energy that fuels writing.

I hadn’t visited New York since the first Covid lockdown in 2020, and I felt estranged from the city that, as a native Long Islander, I had had in my backyard growing up.

But I think the feeling that surged through me wasn’t simply a hankering for Gotham. It was more akin to the gift traveling anywhere bestows on everyone, but perhaps especially writers. The jolt that new discoveries afford us. Travel encourages us to pay attention, and to paraphrase Anne Lamott, writing is all about learning how to pay attention.

It reminded me of a trip to Montreal, where I fell under the spell of French simply by seeing a road sign on the highway for “hebergement” (lodging). This was back before Covid, but at a time when traveling farther afield wasn’t possible. So we jumped in the car and drove up from our home in Connecticut. Dusting off my high school French, I was thrilled when I managed to complete a simple transaction in a bakery. We were staying in a residential neighborhood called Rosemount-La Petite Patrie which is full of delightful duplexes with second floor balconies facing the street that overflowed with flowers, bikes and the odd pair of running shoes. On a whim one evening, I took a walk at sunset. As the sky turned purple, I craned my neck to get a better view. On a sliver of park land I glimpsed between duplexes I could see soccer players practicing, while bike commuters ambled by me. And notebook in hand, I began taking an inventory of the neighborhood’s businesses: a grocer, an off-license, a hair salon, a book shop, a toy emporium, a real estate office, the plumber, a driving school (automatique and manuelle) and so on.

Why would I do that? Well, I just felt so alive I needed to note everything I was seeing.

For some people, this swooning would move them to look at real estate brochures, and imagine a new life in the vacation destination.

For us writers, the swooning means one thing: new writing. Which, for us, is a new life. A new lease on life.

Perhaps it’s the discovery of something that seems hidden. A similar sensation occurred one morning when I dropped off my son at school in our suburban Connecticut town. Along the route is a glorious waterfall that’s largely hidden from the road. I turned on the first road after the waterfall only to discover not a creek feeding the falls as I had expected but a small pond surrounded by stately homes and long, manicured lawns dotted with canoes. A tiny neighborhood nestled in a de facto nature preserve I knew nothing about in my own town. By the pond was a bench next to a Little Library so I sat down and got to work.

If I said going to Paris — or Tokyo or Rio — will awake the writing muse within you, it wouldn’t sound like a major discovery. It also wouldn’t be of much use to writers who for a variety of reasons can’t jet off to these far-flung places.

Instead, what I’ve found is small journeys are often enough to get me writing again or writing in a new way.

Ideally on the journey I discover a waterfall park in Midtown Manhattan, or trot out my rusty French to order a croissant in Montreal “comme ça.” But even simply making a detour after school dropoff and finding a new writing nook at the edge of a pond will do. And it’s a relief knowing a short trip – one that’s within practically anyone’s reach – will provide a jolt. The jolt we writers so desperately need – the one that gets us writing.

Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. You can find her blog at http://ciambellina.blogspot.com.

Speculative Memoir Made Me Real

July 6, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Laraine Herring

The Velveteen Rabbit undid me. A stuffed Rabbit, a friendship with a living Boy, and the tale of how love and believing in what could not yet be seen turned fabric, stitches, and button eyes into fur, muscle, and whiskers.

Embracing my imagined worlds helped me become Real, too.

And as someone who is now Real, I am qualified to help define the terms of my arena. Here’s one:

Speculative memoir is an umbrella genre in which the questions of the memoirist’s book are addressed through speculative elements, which may include ghosts, metaphors, what-ifs, imaginative scenarios, and fantasies. It is memoir focused more on the possibilities of the internal world than the facts of the external world.

But it took me a long time to be able to claim that definition. To be able to stand in all of my skin. Vulnerability has never come easy. I teach for a reason. I’m a therapist for a reason. Let other people expose their hearts while I stay hidden, safe behind boundaries of steel.

Embrace your weird.

You’re too strange.

You have a unique perspective.

You’ve lost your direction.

These contradictions followed me from school to school, job to job, until colon cancer pushed me into a story that obliterated them, revealing the myth behind the message.

When I was a girl, I read The Velveteen Rabbit over and over. I loved the gentle bunny, the way he loved his Boy, and the way that love, over time, made him Real. But to me, he was Real before. From the minute Rabbit appeared on the page, he was Alive. This was true with my own stuffed animals—Zebra and Monkey and Dragon. As I got older, Carl the Coffee pot began to speak, as did Zoya, my red Toyota and faithful companion, and of course Eva, the air conditioner. Imaginings, sure. But also Real. Also impactful.

Walls in particular spoke to me, the imprints of the people and animals they’d held still shimmering on the faded paint. I saw my first ghost in my great-aunt Lena Mae’s house in North Carolina. I was walking up the stairs and she was coming down. I remember the pink feathered hat she wore. I remember the warmth of her when I had expected a chill.

Could I have made her up?


Who can prove a ghost?

But that’s the wrong question. We don’t have to prove that our imaginings are Real. We don’t have to quantify them for others. The better question—the question that connects to writing our stories—is How have these imaginings shaped our lives?

I never spoke of these relationships. I didn’t want to explain them, but I also didn’t want to share them. They were private. In the 5th grade, a particularly-bullied year, I made tiny yarn creatures and brought them to school in a baggie so I could talk to them when I had no one else to talk to. The Alpha Boy found them—they always do, the Alpha Boys—and began to toss my baggie of friends back and forth over the desks when the teacher left the room. I knew better than to try to catch them—my physical awkwardness already legendary. I could only wait until he grew tired of the game, or the teacher returned, and we all went back to our desks pretending that we were sweet and innocent, pretending that we didn’t already know how precious and sacred our personal visions were, pretending that we hadn’t already learned how to hide them away to keep them safe.

After cancer, all the reasons for pretending to be someone other than who I was vanished. All the fears about being seen, being made fun of, being hurt were overpowered by the awareness of death. The always-lurking question of what would I regret not doing should I die tomorrow reared up, and all the voices of all the ghosts and walls and stuffed animals returned, and there was no way to contain them anymore—no way to pretend they didn’t impact my life.

When I decided I wanted to share my story, I froze up again with the memory of those yarn creatures flung carelessly in the air.

People will not understand.

People will make me feel small.

I chose to write a speculative memoir because my inner life impacts my outer life. Because my imaginings have been my friends, my mentors, my hauntings, and my companions. Because to leave out the richness of that world would be to shift me back to 2-dimensional—back to the flat shape that they tried to force me into in middle school. Back to invisibility and conformity. Back to malleable and agreeable and utterly unremarkable, a word you want to see on your CT scans, but not a word you want to guide your life.

When the voice of Raven appeared, the magical form helped me explore my own story of complicated grief, I had found my guide and my friend again. I hadn’t turned my back so far that my imaginings couldn’t reach me. I hadn’t betrayed them, like I had betrayed my yarn creatures by not fighting for them when the outside world tried to take them away.

I was busy doing other things when cancer came, and my father, thirty years dead, returned to me as a Raven.

This is my story. I am Real. My imagined world has helped me make choices, resolve old wounds, forgive others and myself. My imaginings are worthy of a voice and audience, and this time around, I will not let the Alpha Boy take them. I will not let their vulnerability become a liability.

I will stand in power with them, all of us Alive.


Laraine Herring’s speculative memoir, A Constellation of Ghosts: A Speculative Memoir with Ravens, will be released in October. She’s also the author of The Grief Forest: a book about what we don’t talk about, and a trilogy of writing books with Shambhala. She’s a professor of psychology and a book coach for women over 40. She’s also the founder of the online ‘zine Hags on Fire, a place for women’s stories about menopause and aging. Find out more at http://laraineherring.com/

A Review of David Carlin and Nicole Walker’s The After-Normal

July 17, 2020 § 4 Comments

afternormBy Randon Billings Noble

The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet is a perfect book to read right now.

But I’m not sure when “now” is for you, dear reader. I am, however, sure it is in the After-Normal. The after-normal is a time of “seasons mutating, oceans acidifying … icecaps melting … brush fires burning hotter, faster, larger …” It’s a time when “what we assumed, like our parents, and their parents before them, was ‘normal’—being part of the rhythmic cycles of slow-moving evolution—will never again, in a geological time span of 100,000 years, return.” This is heavy stuff. And this book wants to address our reactions to it: What do we think? How does it feel? What do we do?

COVID-19 has changed the After-Normal but it’s still an After-Normal. As I write this, I’ve been quarantining for more than two months. With my spouse and nine-year-old twins. In a two-bedroom city apartment that feels smaller every day. We are lucky and grateful to be healthy.  But money is tight and the future—our future—uncertain. It’s difficult to think about the larger future—not just ours but everyone’s, not just in our lifetimes but our planet’s.

David Carlin and Nicole Walker can help us. They have written a book of “flash essays, in parallel with each other, one for each of the twenty-six letters of the Latin alphabet… [co-opting] the form of an A-Z ‘how to guide.’”  They begin with albatross and bacteria and canal, and end with xeric, you, and Z.

Essays in this book range from five pages to one sentence, their titles from “Bitumen” to “Hesitation,” from “Embroidery” to “Frog” from “Xoxoxoxoxo” to “Death.” But they all in some way confront or address the After-Normal, sometimes with sadness, sometimes with humor, often with joy.

For those of you who like riffs, tangents, and free association, you will love this book. Same if you like the short essays in Knausgaard’s Autumn, Heidi Julavitz’s The Folded Clock, Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights or, ahem, Brevity. Same if you, too, wonder what to do in this uncertain but always After-Normal.

Going back to the idea of riffing, an essay like “Catastrophe” starts with etymology, jumps to various cats (including the cat in Jonathan Franzen’s Purity), move to dogs, spikes out to Hart Crane, returns to etymology, then cat treats, then dog treats, and ends with the world on fire, “burning with clouds of red cardinals.” It’s like being a pinball in the game of someone else’s mind, bouncing between associations as the meaning of the essay builds. In some ways the whole book is like this—ever changing in subject, ever shifting in mood, but always illuminating some aspect of the After-Normal.

Here are some of my favorite passages:

From “Junk”: “Whalers called the melon of a butchered sperm whale ‘junk.’ This melon/junk, a mass of fatty tissue adjacent to the largest brain on Earth, was so named as it was the part of a whale’s head more or less useless for extracting sperm oil. For the whale the junk is not-junk .…”

From “Later”: “Maybe the problem is that we’ve never before had such power, as a species, both to predict and to affect the future.”

From “Loophole”: “Loopholes aren’t the soft things in fabric or in paper. They aren’t accidents but purposes. The word comes from the slits built into castle walls where soldiers could remain protected .… Loopholes are hard things, hard as night, hard as sleep, hard as children sleeping on hard floors .…”

From “Quarrel/Quarantine”: “Two things that can’t be isolated: love and change.”

I find that last quote particularly comforting. Especially now.

Just because the world as we know it is ending, Carlin and Walker claim, doesn’t mean we can’t enrich ourselves with long flights to see old friends, with whiskey, with pancetta, with a crab sandwich. The “bad” must be balanced with the “good”—so much so that I feel the need to put quotes around each.

(“Krab” contains the recipe for said crab sandwich, by the way. And not krab with a k. “If your objective in life is to die happy, spend the big bucks on real crab.”)

Lots of things can make us happy, and many are explored in these essays—growing your own fruit trees, following internet rabbit-holes, writing with a fountain pen, writing to governors, eating sardines from a can, reading letters that traveled half a world to get to you.

My favorite thing about this book is that it can be read so many ways. Straight through or skipping around. As a prescription or as a hall pass. For fun or in earnest. But why these binaries? These essays can be read both ways at once.

Nicole and David got the idea for this book while walking on a beach near David’s home in Melbourne, Australia. They “talked about the trouble with environmental writing—how some of it can be so depressing, humorless, shaming, guilt-ridden,” how it separates “Nature” from culture, and how that “separation is a symptom of the problem.” They agreed to write a book that “moved beyond useless despair, feel-good guilt, or callous denial. Toward noticing, and witnessing … to respond, with care and love and justice.” This conversation evolved into the conversation of the essays in this book

One way this book resonates in this new stage of pandemic After-Normal is that it brings the far-flung up close—Arizona if you’re in Australia, Australia if you’re in Arizona, both if you’re in England or New England or Argentina or the Arctic. It looks into igloos, gets microscopic with bacteria, pans back to show the Earth from the exosphere.

Personally, I’m finding it deeply pleasurable to travel so far from the confines of my own quarantined home.

Quite another thing is the challenges that these essays present—to be conscious of our peccadilloes and our privileges, our crimes against the environment as well as our efforts—however individual, however small—to save it.

Reading this now I feel the balancing act all too acutely. I have to get out of the house but I’ll wear a mask while I walk … unless there’s no one around (early in the morning, later in the evening) in which case I’ll peel it carefully from my ears, the feeling of fresh air on my face something I didn’t know I took for granted until now, on this deserted side street, the smell of wet leaves and soil and peonies more delicious than ever before. I’m trying to be responsible while still taking small pleasures where I can find them.

So maybe that’s the lesson in The After-Normal as well as whatever version of the After-Normal we’re currently living in—know the rules, know what hurts others and can be helped, know what hurts others but can’t be helped; try to follow these practices, the order of the alphabet, even if it’s not as easy ABC 123.  Because either way it’s you and me—and the other 7.8 billion people on the planet.

(This review also follows the alphabet, starting with A for After-Normal and ending with – well – you’ll see.)

Underneath the somewhat rigid form of the abecedarium, however, are David and Nicole’s essays, each flexible and capacious (however short they may be).  And the combination is both powerful and pleasurable – especially when it’s these two writers in conversation.

Voice can be a tricky thing in a collaborative work. But Carlin’s and Walker’s voices are both similar but distinct, compatible but individual. Once you read through, say, G, you can tell who’s who but by then it only matters if you want it too. Instead of competitive tennis, it’s a happy volley. I was thinking about this (thwack), what do you think about that (phut)?

(Who knew there was a name for the sound a tennis ball makes? Phut. So many new things learned from and through this book.)

X, however, is always tricky. Other than the overused x-ray, what starts with x? The After-Normal has taught me yet another new word: xeric: characterized by a scanty amount of moisture. Having enough water is a concern in the world, certainly in Australia and Arizona, where David and Nicole are from, and this essay reminds us that “[n]ot enough moisture leads to friction.”

Yet friction is not always a bad thing. David’s essay “Xeric” reminds us that “[t]his is the time in which the friction caused by the urgency of what we face makes new ideas and new alliances suddenly thinkable and malleable.” What new thinking about health and patriotism and racism and entitlement and compassion and community will come from this pandemic, our newest iteration of the After-Normal? What new beginning will come from our old beginning’s end?

Z is the end, the last letter. And, like X, it’s also a hard letter to start a sentence with. Especially a sentence that starts the last paragraph of a book review. But here goes: Because of its stimulating qualities, The After-Normal helps me think. But because of its reassurances, these essays also allow me to sleep at night. And that good night’s sleep – Zzzzz – allows me to wake up to another day in the After-Normal, ready to face whatever this ever-changing world might bring.

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her collection Be with Me Always was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2019, and her lyric essay chapbook Devotional was published by Red Bird in 2017. Other work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. Currently she is the founding editor of the online literary magazine After the Art as well as the editor of an anthology of lyric essays forthcoming from Nebraska in 2021.


A Review of Amy E. Wallen’s When We Were Ghouls

July 3, 2018 § 2 Comments

9780803296954-Perfect.inddBy Debbie Hagan

In 1992, my husband and I, grabbed the opportunity to live in southern Germany for two years. To prepare, we hired a Berlitz instructor, who laughed at our feeble attempts to make the German “r” sound—a scratchy, back-of-the-throat growl. She shook her head and said, “It doesn’t matter. All Germans speak English.

Unfortunately, we discovered upon our arrival, this was not true. In our cute Bavarian town of Ingolstadt, we could not understand a word the locals said. They spoke bayerisch, a medieval dialect spoken with dark guttural vowels, a loopy drawl, and words that one needed a bayerisch dictionary to understand. A few shopkeepers acted as if they understood our butchered-up hochdeutsch. They spoke back, but between the accent and the local dialect, we were lost.

We had so much to do: find an apartment and buy a kitchen (cabinets, sink, stove, refrigerator, faucet) and lights. In Bavaria, the kitchen and lights are part of one’s own personal furniture. The lights ran on 220 volts, so we also had to be careful not to electrocute ourselves when wiring them up. We were strangers in a strange land—and not always welcomed. It’s a feeling that has stuck with me, especially when I meet foreign visitors or immigrants struggles with language. I worry if they feel lost too?

I thought of this while reading When We Were Ghouls, by Amy E. Wallen. She’s a lot like I was—an outsider, facing strange customs with a bit of fright and awe. Though she’s just a child, she moves from one chaotic, unstable country to another.

It begins with one of the compelling openings I’ve read in a long time. Wallen, just eight years old, is perched atop a pre-Inca graveyard in Peru, digging with her parents for pots, fabrics, and wrapped corpses. She unearths a skull that’s not only intact but has a silver band wrapped around it. Her father tells her, he was a prince, and the silver band is what’s left of his crown. He tells her, they’ll keep it. Maybe they’ll turn it into a lamp.

“We were ghouls. We had no respect,” admits Wallen’s mother when the author, while writing this book, asks, were they really grave robbers?

They did remove ancient objects from a burial mound, the mother admits. However, she didn’t think the objects had any real value. Bones and pottery were everywhere.

“Her denial is vexing,” Wallen writes. “Denial, the finest form of forgetfulness.”

Yet, this book isn’t so much about her crazy family’s mistakes. It’s more about being a child survivor, adapting to situations uncomfortable and bizarre. “Something about me likes having a family made up of looters, grave robbers, and ghouls. The Munsters incarnate,” she writes.

Her parents are mercurial, Bohemian-types, reminiscent of Jeanette Walls’ in The Glass Castle (albeit, Wallen’s seem a bit more enterprising and mentally stable).

The family ends up in far-flung, semi-dangerous places, such as Nigeria, Peru, and Bolivia.

Wallen’s father, employed by Phillips Petroleum, explores oil drilling sites. Their first move sends them to Nigeria, where seven-year-old Wallen suddenly realizes, “We had a new way of life, and it didn’t include the Piggly Wiggly anymore.”

The father is gone most of the time. The sister and brother attend school in Switzerland. Even Wallen’s mother leaves, returns to the United States to attend her mother’s funeral. So Wallen is home alone, under the supervision of the housekeeper and driver.

An active, inquisitive child, Wallen dodges her caretakers and wanders out of the family’s compound, On the streets of Lagos, curious Nigerian children flock around her. “They took turns touching my arms, rubbing their hands down my forearm, back and forth, then giggling and trading places with another kid in the back of the crowd,” she writes.

The driver panics when he realizes the girl is missing and runs to the street calling, “Little Sister.” Eventually he finds her, coaxes her home. There, Wallen asks, What were the children doing?

He replies, “They just want see if it rubs off.” It was the white of her skin.

At Christmas, the family reunites, but no one is able to find a real Christmas tree. Pine trees don’t grow in Nigeria. Thus, they borrow a silvery tinsel tree from a Norwegian family. It comes with a rotating disk that throws colored disco lights.

On Christmas day, Lagos has scheduled an execution. It seems like a fun thing to do, Wallen and her brother think. So they sneak out of the house, but there’s such a mob scene in the streets, they can’t get close enough to see anything. The next morning, Wallen opens up the newspaper to find a photo of the execution: a man hanging from a rope, his eyes wide open.

“What did the horrific violence signify?” wonders the writer looking back at her young self. “How did it relate to me?” What she remembers is a sense of dread: “anything could happen at any moment, and I had no way of knowing when or who or how.”

In When We Were Ghouls, the reader lives with Wallen through her precarious childhood as she faces odd customs, random violence, death, and a somewhat uncertain future. It’s a view that’s unsettling, but a reminder of how vulnerable it is to be an outsider.

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and author of Against the Tide (Hamilton Books, 2004). Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, Boston Globe Magazine, and elsewhere. She’s a visiting lecturer at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

The Family as Inattentive Audience

February 7, 2018 § 28 Comments

z KristenPaulson-NguyenAuthorPhotoBy Kristen Paulson-Nguyen

I’ve written a new essay, and I’m eager to share it. After we’ve eaten the dinner I rushed to prepare in between writing and participating in a Skype call with other writers — and thus screwed up, missing that the whole wheat orecchiette was supposed to be cooked in the chicken broth — I open up my laptop. “Want to hear the essay I wrote about me and my brother Rick today?”

My husband’s head is down; he’s looking at his phone. Our eight-year-old daughter dances next to her chair, eager for dessert. “It’s short,” I say. “Sure,” he says, not looking up. I begin to read, and for five seconds, my family pays attention. Then my daughter darts over to whisper something in her dad’s ear. He nods. I pause. “Are you guys listening?” My husband looks up from his phone.

A few years ago he bought me a copy of Poets & Writers magazine at Brookline Booksmith. As I flipped through it, ogling the far-flung retreats listed in the back matter, he shook his head. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he said, in both a resigned and fond way. “It’s all over now.” I saw then that he fears losing me. He’s afraid that a torrent of words will sweep me away from our marriage.

Maybe that’s why when I begin reading again he interrupts me with a question. I pause for the second time. I wonder: would a writer-husband be more attentive than my pharmacist-DJ husband, or less? I try an appeal to his creative side. “It’s not the same thing at all really, but think about this. What if you were DJing a song, and I shut off the music in the middle of it to ask you a question? How would you feel?” No response. “Can you please just listen for two more paragraphs? I’m getting to the point here.”

Maybe the essay should have gotten to the point sooner. This is the value of an audience, even an inattentive one — our daughter has disappeared into the living room to play. I finish reading. “What do you think?” I ask my husband. “Did you show it to your brother?” he asks. “No.” “Oh.” We sit. “Well,” I tell him. “Aren’t you glad that I didn’t write about you today?” We laugh uneasily.

I’ve been working on a book-length project about our marriage that requires me to enter and exit both the living partnership and the story about it. I do so clumsily. The transitions feel like stumbling through a revolving door. Despite my husband’s trepidation about losing me to exotic retreats, and about his presence in my memoir in progress, I recall a moment a few months ago when he indirectly showed his support of my work. He used a windfall to pay off our mortgage. His generosity is an extravagant gift. Perhaps he’s listening after all.

Kristen Paulson-Nguyen is the 2017 Writers’ Room of Boston Finalist for her memoir-in-progress, To Have and To Hoard. Kristen completed GrubStreet’s year-long Memoir Incubator in 2017. Headspace published her personal essay “A Day With: Hoarding Disorder;” her reporting has appeared in the Boston Globe. Kristen is grateful to Louise Fitzhugh for giving her a character she relates to—Harriet the Spy (with her ever-present notebook). Follow Kristen @kpnwriter.

To Page Or Not To Page?

October 4, 2016 § 6 Comments

Brevity's Social Media Editor (L), pictured with a more circumspect member of our staff.

Brevity’s Social Media Editor (L), pictured with a more circumspect member of our staff.

Officially, I’m Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. What that means is I blog here, tweet, help boost the signal on Facebook posts and tweets by/about Brevity‘s journal and blog, and keep an eye out for trends in the literary internet, many of which I report back to you, our Gentle Readers. I also maintain my own social media–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and an occasional personal blog post.

I’m often asked–and I see writers agonizing about–what social media we “should” have. In particular, whether it’s worth it to have a Facebook page for our “author self” as well as a personal profile.

If you’ve already decided Facebook isn’t for you, or you don’t enjoy social media at all, feel free to skip this post. Go write something. But if you’re wondering about Facebook pages vs profiles, here’s the skinny:

Facebook pages are only useful if your agent insists you have one and you have ten thousand likes. Even then, 90% of your followers won’t see 90% of your posts, unless you pay.

Sad, but true. The way Facebook’s algorithms function (as of October 2016) makes pages without paid advertising more or less useless. People will only see your posts if they visit the actual page, on purpose. (Notice that the Brevity “page” is actually a group, which gives us more engagement with Gentle Readers, but requires more time to monitor and maintain.)

You may want one anyway. Facebook pages are useful if you are very concerned about online privacy. Your agent or publisher may insist you have one. And if you do, you may as well copy-paste all your writing-related statuses over there. It’s nice to refer people to, and to show off all your reviews in one place. About every six months, ask all the people you know to like your page, so that you gradually build an audience of people who have volunteered to hear from you. Other than that, leave it alone unless you’re embarking on a specific social media campaign–it’s one more thing sucking your time away from writing.

You don’t need a Facebook page if you’re OK with less privacy. As far as I’m concerned, Facebook is my public face. It’s not a private sharing space. I don’t friend back everyone who friends me, and I don’t post anything I’m embarrassed to share with the world. Right now, I’m also small-time enough that connecting personally with readers is still doable and desirable. For me, this goes hand in hand with the idea that the internet isn’t really a private place, and if I’m ever a big enough deal to get paparazzi-d, they’ll find anything I ever put out there. So it might as well be words I chose.

If you choose to use your personal Facebook page as your public face, don’t post things you don’t want strangers reading/seeing, and check your privacy settings for anything you want to limit to friends or a specific list. Remember that you don’t have to friend everyone back and clog your own feed with the rainbow-pug memes of a thousand strangers–when someone friend-requests you, they become your follower and see your public posts. It can be worth it to spend 5-10 minutes liking and commenting on the posts of people you don’t know well, but who you would like to have become your readers and your far-flung connections–your posts show up more in the feeds of people you engage with. Every day, think a little more about crafting your posts so that you’re revealing what you choose, and you’re pleased to have a stranger see them.

Yes, this can feel a little fake. A little dishonest. Even creepy. But I’m a confessional nonfiction essayist, and my brand is personal me. And “personal me” is a curated, purposeful presentation of subjects I genuinely care about and engage with, much like a “personal” essay. Every time I post, I’m practicing writing to be read. Every time I post, I’m aware that people I don’t know personally are reading it–and I’m pretty happy about that.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

A Review of Bernadette Murphy’s Harley and Me

May 13, 2016 § 6 Comments

harleyby Melissa Greenwood

Ostensibly, Bernadette Murphy and I have little in common. A mother of three, the author of Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life, is a tattooed associate professor who took up motorcycling in midlife. As for tattoos and children, I have neither. I’m thirty-two and check the box beside single/not married on my taxes each year. (I also have a grandmother who would faint if I showed up for Passover with body art.) As for motorcycling, I lack the risk-taking gene. In fact, you couldn’t even get me on a regular bike without the promise of an empty parking lot, hand brakes, and a tightly-strapped helmet. So why on earth would this book appeal to a woman who prefers spinning teacups to roller coasters?

For one thing, Murphy and I weren’t always so different. Believe it or not, she once “had contingency plans for contingency plans.” She believed that if she worried enough about something, she could keep the next “far-flung-but-certainly-pending tragedy” from happening. I can relate. Like Murphy, “what ifs” keep me up at night. But I have to confess, I’m a bit of a former risk-taker. Scroll back a decade to my twenties, and you’ll find a girl who was careless with her body and her money.

Each of us, whether we put ourselves out there physically or emotionally, understands that taking chances can be seductive. While Murphy is more of a daredevil than some, she isn’t suggesting we line up to skydive or that we have to be risky her way. On the contrary, she advocates for risk-taking in whatever way makes sense for the reader, claiming it has brain benefits. (See the term “neuroplasticity” in the closest dictionary, then bring the word with you to your next dinner party.) Murphy has limits. She couldn’t believe her daughter Hope wanted to bungee jump for her twenty-first birthday or that, as I write this, her partner Edmund is realizing his lifelong aspiration to climb Everest. Her openness to chance is elastic, moldable, and reader-specific. The beauty of this book is that we don’t have to be exactly like its author to appreciate the universal story here, which, at its core, is about personal transformation—for some of us, the biggest risk of all.

Murphy’s journey toward self-acceptance comes on the dawn of her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and follows her father’s death. “Staring down the barrel of fifty,” she finds herself at a crossroads: “me or the fear?” As it turns out, her marriage has become uninspired, and the fear feels inescapable: divorce. Making strategic decisions that are in line with self-care, the narrator carves out a new life for herself, but with change comes discomfort: tiny guesthouse quarters, table set for one, empty bed. Her motorcycle becomes the companion she picks up entirely by accident while researching the hobby for a fictional character she planned to write about. On the motorcycle, she learns to make peace with her messy present.

This push-pull between the life imagined and the one lived resonated with me on a visceral level, and not surprisingly. Murphy’s ability to reach a diverse audience makes her the successful writer she is. You see, I live at home, in my mother’s basement. And by basement, I actually mean downstairs. And by downstairs, I really mean my mom’s room is directly beside mine with a mere decorative curtain separating our two doors (and that’s mainly on account of my dignity). Could I spend all of my time obsessing over my unmarried, childless, condo-less reality? Believe me, I could. And if I’m honest, most days I do: I choose unhappiness. But I have another choice: I can embrace my life exactly as it is and practice humility. And in reading Harley and Me, I suddenly found myself wanting a way in to this alternate path—to grace and acceptance. I suddenly wanted to be a little more like the bad-ass narrator, who, while not entirely fearless, is at least “open to the idea of yes these days”; whose new mantra is “Be. Here. Now”; who is finally experiencing her “wildness fully…[who is] willing to evolve or die”;  who leans in to what scares her with all her might—throwing her body into that turn, even when it feels like it will kill her.


Melissa Greenwood has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, where author Bernadette Murphy is both an alumna and a mentor. In her past lives, this LA-native freelanced for various entertainment magazines and local papers, taught middle school English, and even custom-fit women for high-end bras. When she’s not writing book reviews, Melissa can be found working as the communications officer at a local private school or taking and teaching Pilates.

Brevity Classic Book Review: Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation

October 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

A Brevity review of a classic nonfiction book from 2005:

Assassination Vacation

Simon & Schuster / Review by By Patty Wetli

Finding Abe
In her travelogue of sites associated with presidential murders, Sarah Vowell visits Charles Town, Virginia, and the Dry Tortugas off the Florida Keys, among other far-flung locations. Me, when I want to commune with Honest Abe, I step out my front door. I not only hail from the Land of Lincoln (that’s Illinois, in case you’re unfamiliar with our state slogan), I live in a neighborhood dubbed Lincoln Square, whose main thoroughfare is Lincoln Avenue, which, it goes without saying, traverses the North Side of Chicago. An essential guide:

Where to stay: Vowell tracks John Wilkes Booth’s escape route to Maryland and nearly loses the trail searching for the Mudd House, the home of the doctor who treated Booth’s broken leg. Visitors to Chicago will be similarly hard pressed to locate lodging outside downtown’s pricey tourist district. Luckily for Lincoln-philes, the rare exception to this rule is a string of motels located on the northern spur of Lincoln Avenue, a holdover from the road’s former glory days as US 41. Check out The Stars, 6100 N. Lincoln; Tip Top, 6060 N. Lincoln; or The Diplomat, 5230 N. Lincoln. Pay no attention to residents who refer to these as “hooker motels.” So what if you can rent rooms by the hour. Doesn’t prove a thing.

Where to eat: The Lincoln Restaurant, 4008 N. Lincoln Ave., would seem the obvious choice. But while this kitschy diner boasts a certain charm—and specialty omelets named after Generals Grant, Sheridan, Lee, et al—enough Yelp! reviews contain the word “gross” to indicate an alternative might be advisable. Let me suggest The Grafton Irish Pub & Grill, 4530 N. Lincoln. Wondering what an Irish pub has to do with Lincoln? For starters, the Irish are experts on civil war. Then there’s the matter of the nearly 150,000 Irish-born soldiers who served in the Union Army and the countless others who fought for the Confederacy. Raise a pint of Guinness in their honor.

What to do: It’s no Ford’s Theatre, where Vowell takes in a performance of the musical 1776, but the Davis Theater,4614 N. Lincoln, also shares ties to an infamous crime. Surely you’ve heard of “The Case of the Ragged Stranger.” No? On June 21, 1920, Carl Wanderer left the Davis (then called the Pershing) and walked home with his pregnant wife, where he had a hit man waiting to murder her. If that doesn’t creep you out, the fact that the theater’s seats seemingly haven’t been re-upholstered or cleaned since, oh, 1920, will.

What to see:“A pilgrimage needs a destination,” writes Vowell. Hers leads to the Lincoln Memorial, which she calls “the closest thing I have to a church.” Ours takes us to Walgreens, 4801 N. Lincoln. We come here not to worship at the altar of deodorant, light bulbs or cigarettes, but the statue of Abe that stands sentry outside the drugstore. Created by renowned sculptor Avard Fairbanks, perhaps best known for designing Dodge’s ram symbol, the statue was dedicated in 1956, for really no apparent reason. Shoo away the pigeons and homeless people who use Lincoln as their roost and perhaps you’ll find the inspiration you’ve been seeking, the following quote by our sixteenth president, inscribed into the statue’s base: “Free society is not, and shall not be a failure.”

Patty Wetli lives in Chicago. Her work has been published in the literary magazine I Ate The Spider, and she contributes reviews to Booklist.

Duck, Duck, Book

March 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Brevity 27 contributor Donovan Hohn is enjoying a duckload of well-deserved attention for his Harper’s article turned book, Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them.

Hohn’s book is a fascinating example of creative nonfiction’s inherent flexibility.  Though on the surface this is a work of what is most often termed “literary journalism” or “narrative nonfiction,” in the tradition of McPhee or Kurlansky, Hohn has a definite essayistic tendency, veering off into odd corners of thought and fact whenever the urge strikes.  It makes for a great read.

Here’s an excerpt from his website:

AT THE OUTSET, I FELT NO NEED TO ACQUAINT MYSELF WITH THE SIX DEGREES OF FREEDOM. I’d never heard of the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch. I liked my job and loved my wife and was inclined to agree with Emerson that travel is a fool’s paradise. I just wanted to learn what had really happened, where the toys had drifted and why. I loved the part about containers falling off a ship, the part about the oceanographers tracking the castaways with the help of far-flung beachcombers. I especially loved the part about the rubber duckies crossing the Arctic, going cheerfully where explorers had gone boldly and disastrously before.

At the outset, I had no intention of doing what I eventually did: quit my job, kiss my wife farewell, and ramble about the Northern Hemisphere aboard all manner of watercraft. I certainly never expected to join the crew of a fifty-one-foot catamaran captained by a charismatic environmentalist, the Ahab of plastic hunters, who had the charming habit of exterminating the fruit flies clouding around his stash of organic fruit by hoovering them out of the air with a vacuum cleaner.

Certainly I never expected to transit the Northwest Passage aboard a Canadian icebreaker in the company of scientists investigating the Arctic’s changing climate and polar bears lunching on seals. Or to cross the Graveyard of the Pacific on a container ship at the height of the winter storm season. Or to ride a high-speed ferry through the smoggy industrial backwaters of China’s Pearl River Delta, where, inside the Po Sing plastic factory, I would witness yellow pellets of polyethylene resin transmogrify into icons of childhood.

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