A Review of Erica Trabold’s Five Plots

November 16, 2018 § Leave a comment

41pmwD1-uVL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_by Cameron Shenassa

“I assume I have always been attracted to the mysterious…” begins the first essay in Erica Trabold’s Five Plots. She is standing in a cave in New Mexico. The cave is dark, and its depths announce an intention for the book. We are going to look into the unknown, to adventure somewhere foreign. What comes as a surprise in this tightly affective collection is that Trabold’s mystery is derived not from forays into unknown places, but from going into a wholly familiar one—her childhood in Nebraska. Whether looking at herself, her family and friends, or the landscape of the Midwest, Trabold uses these essays to ask how we can reconcile familiarity with a place with the mysterious and destabilizing feelings of being far from home, even when we are in it.

Perhaps this is the struggle for all of those who write about the middle of the country: how to render the strangeness of a place we think we know. Just the term “heartland” likely conjures a certain image for many of us, before devolving into the shorthand vocabulary often employed by those who would seek to point to its shortcomings: flat, wide, white, big sky, Republican, etc. Lately that vocabulary of monotony has become laced with tragedy, and we could well add decline, addiction, and others to the list to round out a simplistic modern view of the center of our country. Though these words are an indication of our own complacency, a conviction that “the heartland” can only be the setting for two kinds of stories: one of decay, the other an impossibly retro vision of small town life, pandered to by politicians and desired for the nostalgia it affords us.

Trabold doesn’t exactly push against these assumptions, though she does situate herself as an objective viewer in this terrain. Her life has taken her away from Nebraska, rendering her a complicated stranger upon her return, and though she doesn’t play into the obvious tropes, there is still tragedy, both personal and of the land. One essay focuses on the destructive means of digging used to shape the housing developments where she has come of age. In another essay, a friend’s mother is found dead of suicide at her house in the country. Add to these stories a feeling, one that tinges all the pages of the book, that the author’s absence has alienated her from the Nebraska of her home and childhood. As Trabold writes in one essay: “To the prairie, we are always returning, as if from exile.” It’s this sensation that unites all the pieces in the book. Underneath the daringly staccato forms, one can recognize a familiar story: that of returning home to find it different from when you left.

It’s fitting that many pages of the collection are devoted to chronicling the settling of the area surrounding the Platte River, as Trabold moves from paragraph to paragraph with a current that flows, meanders, seeking meaning through the arrangement of its segments. Trabold relies on implication-through-juxtaposition as an essential tool to create tension and release, and to join disparate narratives together. Though at times, I wondered if this tendency to imply rather than explain didn’t muddy the waters a bit. Particularly in the center essay, “Borrow Pits,” I found a promise of narrative gush reduced to a swirling eddy. I couldn’t figure out how the pieces worked together, or if they had a destination in mind.

Contrast that piece with the brilliantly structured “A List of Concerns,” in which a return trip to Nebraska to reconnect with old friends serves as occasion for a handful of narrative streams to come together, tributaries to each other, with great propulsive effect. Trabold is at her most intimate in this piece, engaging most directly with feelings of betrayal, aware of the lens through which she sees her Nebraska people now, and grappling with it before landing the essay in a deeply unsettling place.

These are the moments when Trabold is most compelling, when she fulfills the promise of mystery, destabilizing the reader in the process. In this tale with tight prose and twisting, highly juxtapositional storytelling, I too was jettisoned into unfamiliar territory, in an unrecognizable place, alone in the heartland, looking around, rediscovering.
___

Cameron Shenassa is a writer and instructional designer from Chicago. His stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in Electric Literature, Hobart, PANK, and other places. He is a dual citizen of the US and Luxembourg.

A Review of Kelly J. Beard’s An Imperfect Rapture

November 9, 2018 § 3 Comments

51rykLZrG1L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_by Margaret L. Whitford

“My mother saw demons,” begins Kelly J. Beard’s stunning debut memoir. Though I feared the narrator would show me the cruelty and violence of her parents’ chosen faith, she does so with such a commitment to understanding the sources of her family’s suffering that I had to follow her narrative.

Religious fundamentalism and poverty, the latter made worse by the former, fracture the narrator’s family into unrecoverable pieces. Only her parents appear unscathed by the “steel belt” of their faith. They remain devoted to each other, their intimate and loving relationship a stark contrast to the isolation of their children.

“Over the years, I’ve wondered,” Beard writes, “why it seems other families endure similar or greater deprivations without siblings turning rivalrous or mean…. I wonder what particular ingredient combined to make our compound combustible. Our father’s complicated anger? Our mother’s changeable heart? Or that one singularly unstable ingredient: their hard faith?”

Beard examines all three influences from the perspective of a sensitive and perceptive child and that of an adult looking back, the two voices essential to memoir. Some of the most beautiful passages arise when both of these narrators co-exist. “It was the last time I remember our family laughing together. We were headed into mean years none of us could see. Still, when Dad turned the car around, we all looked back, staring at the road behind us as though our laughter were a tangible presence lingering there, dark swifts in twilight, darting and diving before vanishing into the distance.”

A quiet grief, evident in this passage, infuses much of An Imperfect Rapture. Regret, I am starting to believe, is an emotion with which all memoirists struggle, a tendency to engage in if only thinking in our examinations of the past. My regrets are not the same as Beard’s, but I recognize the feeling.

Organized in three parts, the memoir follows a loose chronology that begins with the narrator as a small child and concludes with her graduation from college. The third section, aptly titled, “Taking Leave,” focuses on the ways in which the narrator pursues distance as a strategy for self-realization. She recognizes that her survival depends on leaving, in both a psychic and physical sense, the literal and figurative desert of her childhood. She studies first in France, and then, following graduation, departs for the Pacific Northwest, a place where no one knows her and where she might “fathom” her own heart.

I also looked to travel overseas as a means to claim something separate from my family, starting with study in France. And, like Beard, I came to understand that the distance I needed to achieve was more complicated than mere geography.

Beard’s journey is primarily a spiritual one in search of her own inner voice, a whisper more powerful than the bellowing of the God of her youth, “an omnipotent schizophrenic,” whose “moments of grace were stitched into years of grief.” And yet, the narrator recognizes and cherishes these rare instances of grace—in the survival of a beloved dog, in the time to pursue the wrong questions until the right ones emerge. Rather than accept the punishing dualism of religious fundamentalism, whose lingering influence she acknowledges, she nurtures a more complex and healing faith.

In a book rich with vivid description, one image stands out for me—a small wooden table the narrator’s father gives her. He’d crafted the piece when he was twelve years old, the first thing he’d ever made. Proud of his accomplishment, he gave the table to his father, whose only response was to put his cigarette out on the wood’s smooth surface, leaving a permanent scar. The narrator keeps the table in the passenger seat as she departs for the Pacific Northwest. “It comforted me to feel the wood’s grain in its scalloped legs, to stroke its smooth surface, to whorl my finger around a scar he could never buff away,” Beard tells us.

Some wounds leave marks. The key to living with grace, it seems to me, is to balance recognition of the scars with an appreciation of the beauty that remains.
___

Margaret L. Whitford is a writer focused on personal essay and memoir. Her essays have appeared in Under the Gum Tree, The Fourth River, Brevity, and elsewhere.

A Review of Mike Faloon’s The Other Night at Quinn’s

October 26, 2018 § 2 Comments

512facvEFXL._SX364_BO1,204,203,200_By Peter Amos

Mike Faloon’s The Other Night at Quinn’s isn’t really about music, and I prefer it that way.

I moved to New York when I was twenty-two and recall two formative experiences.

  • Barreling over the Manhattan Bridge on a D-train – squished in a seat facing the rear, knees tucked against a man in a trench coat – reading Amiri Baraka’s “Coltrane at Birdland” (… to hear a man destroy it, completely, like Sodom, with just the first few notes from his horn).
  • Sitting in a folding chair with pinballs whistling and tilting in my ears me while Ben Monder, guitar in hand, cracked open Pandora’s box with a mallet from behind a wide semi-circle of cables and stomp boxes.

I learned in rapid succession that words are musical and that music can defy categorization. Faloon knows this too. My music history teacher passed along the often-quoted quip that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. She meant that writing about music can’t capture its essence. My high school art teacher used to say that you can’t paint the sun – “It’s just too hot!” He meant that we’re reduced to painting its impact: shadows, blood orange, and fuchsia as it dips behind clouds.

Faloon understands that music is far too hot for painting. He writes about the experience of watching it rather than the music itself. A series of quirky essays represent his introduction to free jazz by way of a Monday night music series at Quinn’s – a local bar in Beacon, New York. He knows he can’t describe the music he’s hearing but doesn’t discover quite how to write about it until later. He assembles descriptions of the town of Beacon, the walk from the car to Quinn’s, the scenes around him, the musicians, the music itself. Injected throughout are brief digressions: events from his life, memories, musings, associations. As he returns to Quinn’s, the memories grow more fluid, the associations more free, until he hits his stride.

He describes, midway through his year of music, a performance by Peter Evans and Sam Pluta:

“Witnessing Evans shove so many ideas through his mouthpiece is like watching traffic funnel into the Holland Tunnel. But those cars crawl, mark their journeys a few feet at a time. Evans has six – or eight or twelve – lanes of ideas barreling ahead, accelerators stomped to floorboards, yet somehow converging.”

This becomes Faloon’s defining conception of the music. The digressions become shorter (a single sentence or word), the references yet more obscure. He stitches together a hodgepodge of impressions, metaphors, juxtapositions, punk bands, movies, comics from radical zines. Faloon articulates the confusion of sitting in a room and experiencing something outlandish. He doesn’t stare into its burning eye, but paints around it, pirouettes and arabesques between the rebar and colonnades.

When music defies comprehension, I’m often surprised by how my brain files it. Ben Monder: drunk hipsters playing pinball. Mary Halvorsen: accidentally missing my first shift at a new job. Ari Hoenig: a friend trying to order a glass of milk at Smalls. Julian Lage: this many people in this space cannot be legal. Ambrose Akinmusire: snow.

Whether the first sip of coffee as Charlie Parker crackles from the speaker or the drive to New York to see heroes play in anonymous Brooklyn basements, music is a thing we do. Musicians have trouble admitting this. See live music and support local art because artists deserve it, music is powerful, you like music and might like this music too. I’ve never been convinced of any of that (though artists do deserve it). We should see live music and support local art because it’s a remarkable experience. Peek inside the mind of another, witness something truly wild or avant garde, watch cheeks bellow and air flow and feel the force of the action immediately. Faloon captures that value.

I leave each chapter with no concept of what the music sounded like, but a clear picture of what it meant to one listener. His attention flits from the ambience, to the loud party in the back, the cymbal hanging dangerously from the drum set, the sax player’s face, the pretentious conversation beside him, self-consciousness, euphoria, his to-do list for work. A sunset is no less sublime for being something other than the sun itself; the swirl and tumble of refracted light, more beautiful than a great, white hot ball. Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but Faloon is graceful and there’s nothing at all wrong with dancing.
____

Peter Amos is a native of rural Virginia. The son of an English teacher and a librarian, he studied music in college and moved to New York City where he works, performs, explores, and writes about it. His work is listed on his site: The Imagined Thing.

 

A Review of Sandra Gail Lambert’s A Certain Loneliness

October 22, 2018 § 2 Comments

9781496207197By Debbie Hagan

At three years old, Sandra Gail Lambert lay in a windowless room, in a plaster cast that covered her from chest to knees, healing from polio surgeries. Her mother would see her only one hour a day. The rest of the time, Lambert did nothing but listen to ambient noises and try to identify their varying sources. This left Lambert claustrophobic and determined never to be trapped again and to make the most of her abilities.

From cast to braces to crutches to manual wheelchair to power wheelchair, Lambert moves on becoming a nature lover, kayaker, photographer, and adventurer plunging headlong into rapids. In these beautiful, linked essays titled A Certain Loneliness (part of the University of Nebraska Press’s American Lives Series, edited by Tobias Wolff), Lambert portrays her life as one that rails against limitations and pushes steadily toward confidence and freedom.

She finds joy in a tight group of women friends, so enmeshed, “We can open the door to each other’s houses and yell a hello,” she writes. “Or we rush over in the middle of the night to be there, make coffee, or cry after bad news…. Sometimes we sneak in a dozen cupcakes, chocolate filled with cream cheese frosting, and leave them on the counter just because.” These are pure friendships without “qualifiers.”

The challenge comes when a new friend enters their circle. Sometimes the friend builds a ramp to her house; sometimes, she doesn’t. If the latter happens, Lambert knows “it’s going to go bad.” Without a bridge, she will never be able to leave surprise cupcakes and ultimately, “I will have to break up with her in my heart.”

The power wheelchair offers Lambert mobility, and yet it creates its own barriers. For instance, she’s about a head lower than everyone else. So, friends must remember to look down; otherwise, she will be left out of the conversations, handshakes, and the hugs she craves. Lambert creates some math to calculate potential opportunities for physical touch. For instance, if she’s going to a friend’s house, she can count on a hello hug. That’s worth about five seconds of contact. Three more hugs, pushes it up to twenty seconds. However, if she swings her body out of her wheelchair and onto the couch, she’ll rub shoulders and thighs on both sides with friends for two hours. That’s 7,200 seconds of touching.

It’s in the streams and woods Lambert finds real freedom. Getting in and out of the wheelchair and into her kayak, launching it, and then reversing the process requires complex maneuvers and calculated risks.

Alone in the Okefenokee Swamp, she sees snakes hanging from the low-hanging branches and the nose, eyes, and rugged back of an alligator. None of this scares her. Fear only comes when she can’t remember if she brought the hook she needs to get to the platform to get to her wheelchair that will take her back to her van. If she doesn’t have that, she’ll be stuck and doesn’t know what she will do. Fortunately, she brought the hook, and as the moon rises, she watches as “the sunlight sheens across the grasses and turns each patch of water into a pink pool.” The songbirds stop, and she hears the hoots of the first night owl. This fills her soul with hope, magic, and self-accomplishment.

As I read this, I reflect upon my eighty-eight-year-old father, who I’d recently took to a nature museum. Since he couldn’t stand for long, I placed him in a wheelchair. As I pushed it around, I saw the world quite differently. I noticed the museum’s railings were mounted at Dad’s eye level, the exhibits placed higher, which caused him to throw his head back and stretch to see them. Visitors darted in front of him, some standing in his line of sight as if he didn’t exist or was too old to matter. We skipped exhibits that were either impenetrable or where visitors were unwilling to let a wheelchair pass.

While Lambert’s memoir shows us one woman’s strength and courage in her battle to defeat fear, loneliness, and physical challenge, I’d like think this book offers more. It should make each of us question: do we build ramps for those differently able or do we simply ignore the problem and look away?
___

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, and elsewhere. She’s a visiting lecturer at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

A Review of Jenny Boully’s Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life

October 8, 2018 § 1 Comment

41PkHEBUsnL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_by Randon Billings Noble

Jenny Boully’s collection of essays on the writing life, Betwixt-and-Between, is indeed betwixt-and-between. It’s certainly a collection of essays, but it’s also something of a craft book, and it’s also wonderfully something … else.

It’s the same way I have felt – as a woman but really more of a person, a person but really more of a writer, a writer but really someone for whom living and language are so intertwined it can often be hard to tell the two apart. It appears to be much the same way for Boully.

“Betwixt” is an archaic term for between, so from the very beginning the book’s title signals a kind of fluidity. The first essay, “the future imagined, the past imagined,” uses verb tenses to explore the shifting nature of time and desire: “we write in the past imagined when we write about old love affairs, because nothing is as unreal, as dreamy as love. And nothing is as confusing, as cryptic, as encoded as what occurs, as what is said, when we leave a love affair and suddenly have to live outside of that dream, the dream where something could occur, might occur, should occur, would occur, could have occurred, might have occurred, should have occurred, would have occurred.

Much of Boully’s writing occupies this liminal space between reality and dream, is and could, did and could have. “Forecast Essay” takes on the predictive, musing on preservation and destruction and how we can keep what we have – or had. “On the Voyager Golden Records” speculates how far into space that “snapshot of the world” will travel, and how far Boully’s own writing will reach in her lifetime. And “Between Cassiopeia and Perseus” mourns the end of a love affair at the end of summer, when both the heat and the clouds conspire against seeing both the Perseid meteor shower as well as one’s new place in the world.

Some of the essays that have more straightforward titles and headings, like “How to Write on Grand Themes,” still surprise the reader with their unexpected leaps into imagery and metaphor.  Expected writerly advice like the section “Pay attention to detail” also urges, “Don’t close, do close your eyes. You will wish, it will never happen again. The aforesaid moment already acting as artifact – the teacup so lonely, so empty.”

But Boully doesn’t always take the unexpected route. She can also be brilliantly direct, as she is in “The Page as Artifact” when she claims, “If you’re spending too much time on the page and not enough time outside the page, then you’ll need to find more time to find poetry.” And in “On the EEO Genre Sheet” Boully pointedly states, “The term ‘other’ … immediately connotes an agenda: If you don’t fit into one of our predetermined categories, well, you aren’t playing the game correctly.”

But who wants to play this particular game – and correctly?  From the beginning, in her preface, Boully tells us that she has become attached to “hesitations, refusals, yearnings, oscillating and uncertain desires.” She describes her writing life as “a place where writing that isn’t quite this or that exists, writing that strives or serves to make manifest the inner workings of a life that isn’t quite about writing nor quite about living.” Like Peter Pan, both Boully and her work draw us to a threshold where we are “not wholly living in make-believe nor wholly living in the consequential world.”

Shifting and resisting, Boully has given us a collection of essays that also functions as a craft book in motion – not a set of directives but evidence of a writing life lived. It is everything we could want, but not as we expect. As Boully says herself of her own work, “I may look like an essay, but I don’t act like one. I may look like prose, but I don’t speak like it. Or, conversely, I may move like a poem, but I don’t look like one.”

And how glad we are for that.
__

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her lyric essay chapbook Devotional was published by Red Bird in 2017, and her full-length collection Be with Me Always is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press on March 1, 2019. Other work has appeared in The New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere.

A Review of Sydney Lea and Fleda Brown’s Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives

September 7, 2018 § 1 Comment

zz ,200_By Adrian Koesters

If you’re lucky, you’ve had someone to talk with about things—someone to answer, “That’s right, that’s right,” to what you’re trying to get at.

The pleasure of reading these letters/essays between Sydney Lea and Fleda Brown is being able to answer, “That’s right,” as we follow their takes on books, food, music, sex, politics, and writing and teaching poetry. Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives is, first of all, an exchange of essays on the writing life. It is also, as they tell us, a “record of an important friendship.” In this, Lea and Brown, past poets laureate of Vermont and Delaware, are as transparent with us as they are with each other.

Transparency takes time, as we know. “William Blake saw that we have to pass through innocence into experience in order to arrive, if that’s the right word, at a higher innocence, a place where we bring everything with us…,” says Brown. Yet, Lea answers, “I’ve imagined my mind to have found something that, at least for the fleeting moment, will suffice.” Even a “higher innocence” is no final arrival.

“The universe is slow, really,” Brown says in “Books,” the first of twelve essays. Her description of the tactile experience of reading the printed word transported me to the card catalog at my college library, the slow, insulated suspension so dearly missed, pulling out one drawer that played to another, learning what books to seek out, the titles delicious, fantastic.

Still reading “Books,” I recalled the even slower universe of the grade school library, the wealth inside a pile of library books, the liberty of the card, the stacks, the tables, the quiet. I remembered in second grade, pleading to take out books each week from the “big section,” and when I got permission, reading the same ones over and over, as Brown also did with her childhood favorites.

Then, I remembered an afternoon when Sister So-and-So called me up, pulled out a list of words, and told me to read them. I didn’t know most, but thought I was rattling them off pretty slick, and that she’d be pleased, but she said only, “That will be all,” and tossed the list in her desk drawer as if it were burning her fingers. If I didn’t already know the life-and-death difference a word could make, I knew it then.

This sense, that the world stands on a word, both poets recognize well, and that if you write it’s likely because you figured this out early on. The exchanges in Growing Old compound and deepen this understanding from one section into the next. In “Sports,” Lea tells of a fascinating journey from the high school hockey field, to a struggle with alcohol and substance abuse, and ultimately to writing. He quotes a poem by James Wright wherein the sons of “proud fathers…/grow suicidally beautiful,” whose pain he understands, whose journey can end in “moral idiocy” in those who cannot comprehend it.

“And yet,” he says, “I’m not large, and I know it.” He loves sports, but Brown says, “I’ve written two sports poems…I can pretend.” They are serious, but they have fun. Lea admits, “The feel of improvisation is what juices up my form.” Brown figures, “Poetry is like a large bird, coming in closer and closer until we finally admit we’re stuck with it.” At times reading their serve-and-return feels like listening to a terrific radio program with your favorite hosts, at others sitting down for long conversation with your friends.

But the final, transcending word is for the writer. Poetry feels like “a self-abandonment to something divine…,” Lea says. It comes, says Brown, from “…silence, [it] needs to open itself into silence, not hostage to anything.” That sounds right, and trustworthy, as both poets admit they know a good bit, but still not much completely for sure.

Two poets grown older, still considering, as they do in the introduction, “Are poets’ lives any different in tone or texture from any other sorts of life?” Maybe not. But the particular vocation of the poet, of the writer, I hear them say, is to free words without too much judgment, to judge words without taking them hostage, and to be “eager to continue.” Growing Old in Poetry is an important book and a conversation and a friendship generously recorded.
___

Adrian Koesters is a poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer. Her most recent essays appear in Oakwood Magazine and 1966: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska.

A Review of Natalie Goldberg’s Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home

August 28, 2018 § 4 Comments

51AYBk1rpdL._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_by Kelly Kautz

I discovered Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones at a bookstore when I was thirteen years old. I already considered myself a writer. As a child, I filled countless notebooks with stories of princesses and talking kittens. But by middle school, I found those stories meaningless. I didn’t yet have the words for the new narratives taking shape inside me. The book’s cover promised to “Free the Writer Within.” I shelled out my allowance and took it home

Goldberg’s writing rules were a stark contrast to the stuff I’d learned in school. Writing Down the Bones urged me to keep my hand moving, go for the jugular, don’t cross out.

Later I purchased Goldberg’s second writing book, Wild Mind.  There I discovered that her writing rules applied to almost everything: tennis, sex, even daily life. Her memoir about Zen Buddhism, Long Quiet Highway, exposed me to a new spiritual practice. Thunder and Lightning taught me about the publishing process. Old Friend from Far Away helped me draft a memoir.

This June, Goldberg released her fourteenth book: Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home.  It’s a cancer memoir, though Goldberg writes in the introduction that she never planned it that way. Friends discouraged it, fearing she’d spark a recurrence. But “the things we avoid have energy. If I ignored my suffering, the life of my writing would die.”

After a decade of lingering health issues, Goldberg is diagnosed with a rare and potentially fatal form of blood cancer: chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL. The illness forces her to cancel a writing workshop in Europe. She asks two long-time students to teach in her place, then types a letter to attendees: “This is about practice. You signed up. Be there to sit, walk, and write. I will be there with you.”

While her students study writing and sip herbal tea, Goldberg begins infusion treatments at the Santa Fe Cancer Center. A longtime Zen practitioner, she finds the world of doctors and hospitals strange.

“I trusted acupuncture, homeopathy, naturopathy,” she writes. “These made sense to me, but cancer made no sense. I was out of my league. I had to drop all of my opinions, my likes and dislikes, and fiercely go into the belly of the beast, the white-coated medical world.”

Goldberg brings readers with her, giving a clear-eyed view of not just her own cancer but that of her partner, Yu-kwan, who discovers a lump in her breast the same time Goldberg is receiving infusions. The double diagnosis strains their relationship. Goldberg wonders, “Who’s going to take care of me?” But as Yu-kwan undergoes a mastectomy, Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home grows from a cancer memoir into a love story. With their mortality on the line, Goldberg realizes the true depths of her love: for her partner, for her writing, for the world.

Throughout the book, Goldberg pays homage to the long-deceased writers who inspire her work. She reflects on travels to Paris, where she placed a penny on the grave of Simone de Beauvoir. She visits Rome and the tombstones of Shelley and Keats. She wonders about William Faulkner: “Whatever he wrote, whatever agony he lived, whatever prize he won, he too is gone. Sure we remember him, but where is William Faulkner?”

Goldberg never receives an answer. After rounds of agonizing treatments and a bone marrow biopsy, she tries a new drug, ibrutinib, that sends the cancer into remission. To celebrate, she and Yu-kwan take a hiking trip they cancelled the year before. They visit the home of the Bronte sisters. Of them, only Charlotte Bronte lived to old age. Tuberculosis took the others: Anne at twenty-nine, Emily at thirty.

“The local Haworth public schools did not read their famous authors, the Bronte sisters,” Goldberg writes. “We don’t recognize the greatness in front of us. We all long for another story, another place. I was sixty-seven years old. That’s a lot more years than the Brontes live. Sixty-seven is a long time. How lucky I was.”

It would be easy to call Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home a reflection on mortality. But all of Goldberg’s books are reflections on mortality. We write to preserve fleeting moments. We write to grant our thoughts and experiences a life beyond our lives.

Goldberg’s books have been my constant companions for the past twenty years. They’ve guided me from a confused adolescence to a spiritual awakening, and through the practicalities of publishing and writing memoir. All the while, they reinforced this simple truth: “A writer gets to live twice. First we live, and then we write about what we have lived … Often the second time is the real life for a writer. It is then we get to claim our existence.”

As a longtime student of Goldberg’s work, I hope she has many more lifetimes to share before she joins the ranks of de Beauvoir, the Brontes, Faulkner. But it’s never too early to place a stone or a penny. To pay homage. To let them know, in Goldberg’s words, “in this tough world, that what they did mattered.”
__

Kelly Kautz is a writer and the manager of content at JPL. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, Salon, and other publications. She is at work on her first book, a memoir about dark family secrets. Follow her blog, The Skeleton Club, or find her on Twitter @kellykautz.

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