A Review of Sebastian Matthews’ Beyond Repair

September 10, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Stephen Corey

At a writers’ gathering several years ago I had picked up a few basic details of the horrific, head-on, near-fatal automobile crash endured by Sebastian Matthews, his wife, and their young son. Because Sebastian and I are acquaintances from shared attendance at such gatherings and from my having published his work several times when I was editing The Georgia Review, I looked forward to learning more from his Beyond Repair: Living in a Fractured State. And I did learn, but most of the more was quite other than I had anticipated.

The opening pages of this literally small volume—more on that in a moment—were in line with what I had assumed the whole would be doing: providing the frightening insider details that only Sebastian could give, and then offering some anecdotal reports on the various stages of his and his wife’s years-long recovery process. (Their son, eight at the time, was in the backseat and remarkably spared all but seatbelt burns.) However, Beyond Repair quickly widens to engage multiple aspects of its cagey subtitle—Living in a Fractured State—and becomes thereby a study in which Matthews essentially sets aside his own physical trauma to focus on the ways it heightened and deepened his awareness of, and concern about, the social and political damages America has been enduring in recent years.

Beyond Repair is small in various ways—and bear with me as I give you some numbers, because they lead to a crucial point. This is a 5×8 paperback, and its count of 160 pages includes thirteen of front matter, fifteen blanks, eighteen holding only visual images or brief quotes from other sources, and a half-dozen that hold a handful or fewer lines of Matthews’ own text.

So, within about one hundred “actual” pages Beyond Repair gives us just over sixty taut essays, with the longest—that opener I mentioned—going just four-plus, and with more than thirty of the vignettes complete on a single page (and ten of those within a half-page). Also, Matthews’ titles seem to be seeking the same quick hits as his essays—twenty-eight bear a single word, fifteen more just two—as if, perhaps, he wants to try giving all his post-accident observations and thoughts the same unexpected and intense feel as the crash itself.

This would be impossible in a literal sense, of course, and would belittle the suffering endured by the two adults, so it’s an approach to the book’s structural elements that may well be more mine than his. But there is that term fractured in the subtitle, so I’m comfortable giving the writer credit for leading me along.

Racial and social-class tensions are the ones most consistently present in Matthews’ observations and concerns, whether blatantly in the muscle-flexing of “White Men in Trucks” or more nuanced via some small, multiracial/multiclass sparks flying in the neighborhood laundromat of “Quarter.” The tentacles of political stance unavoidably reach into the book as well, and these broader topics ended up pulling me along as much as, and then even more than, Sebastian’s long-range recovery from his brutal injuries.

White guy though I be, I have come to have a very diverse family over the decades. A number of years after having two daughters of our own, my wife (also white) and I adopted two more daughters, one from South Korea, the other from Peru—and their eventual partner choices have yielded us grandchildren who have added black and Hispanic strains to our inner circle. I’m neither innocent enough nor arrogant enough to claim too much about these facts, especially when Matthews overhears a young black writer say during a mostly-white-attendee conference, “‘They’re well-meaning, with their Black Lives Matter signs on their yards, but, really, they don’t know how to act around people of color.’” Still, none of us know as much as we need to know about people who are not ourselves, and too many of us fail to recognize that fact—and I’m grateful to Matthews for reminding me of this while he reminds himself.

Place and point of view are fluid in Beyond Repair: often we are told where we are, but not always; the dominant pronoun for the narrator is I, but with an irregular regularity you or he or we drops in. Further—and I mean this as an odd but definite praise—the entire work exhibits a fluidity that could be a weakness in many books. I’m not saying I don’t think Matthews gave careful consideration to the placement of the sixty-three individual essays, as well as to his division of the nine sections whose essay-count is an almost-obsessive-seeming 9-9-9-4-4-9-9-9-1. Rather, I believe he is recognizing the slippery-fish nature of his explorations, and thereby confronting the central contradiction of his effort:

Some readers may well ask whether the fractures in this book’s movement are spot-on, or an avoidance of full enough commitment to the healing that often seems to be the truest of Sebastian Matthews’ intentions, or a mixture of these and other results. I believe he offers what Poe would have termed a “purloined guide,” waiting until two-thirds of the way through the book to clue us directly about something we may or may not have been picking up on our own: in “Walking Lubbock” (which he is doing literally with a friend), Matthews susses out his dilemma and his search for a solution:

I worry aloud that our world has moved “beyond repair.” Curtis pushes back on the thought.

Is anything really ever beyond repair? I try to explain myself. I mean, why even try to repair something so broken? We bat the idea around. Maybe it’s not about systemic failure—as in That car is dead, it’s beyond repair—but, instead, about something transformational—as in, We need to move beyond repair. Not trying to fix something but overhauling the whole system.

Throwing everything out and starting again.

However, we are not looking at “the answer” here. Twenty pages further along Matthews forces himself to confront the word of Clinton J. Moyer in a Huffington Post article: “This, my white friends, is privilege. Even in our most activist moments, we don a cause like a fashionable hat, briefly, briefly, until we exhaust our emotional reserves.” Matthews is hit hard by this reminder of the inherent privilege he cannot entirely work off or wish away, but he cannot (and should not) set aside the fact that he bears another weight, that of the nearly-died, which has become a strong assistant to his search for fairness and decency at as many turns as possible.

In the earlier mentioned “Quarter,” Matthews watches (and hears) as the laundromat attendant pours a “steady cascade” of coins from one unlocked dryer box after another.

“I always try to listen . . .” she puts a finger up to her ear, tapping it lightly, “. . . for that sound . . .”

I smile at her, though not sure yet what she means.

“. . . I listen for that one silver sound.” She turns back to her work. “One quarter is usually pure silver, you know.”

Key in slot, the box slid out, dumped in the tub.

I listen for the silver sound but can only hear the dull roar of coins dropping from their chute.

Believing as I do in the centrality of smart metaphor as one of the keys to creating distinctive and effective writing, I have come to sense this quiet late scene in Beyond Repair—only four more essays follow it—as a crucial entryway to Sebastian Matthews’ understanding of how far he has come and how much farther he has to travel. His near-death experience brought him to a new intensity of awareness about a broad range of the experiences of others around him, but not to any quick-won answers to the questions that awareness raises. I strongly suspect that he will be walking other streets in other Lubbocks, seeking and finding some progression of answers in essays longer or—who can say?—even shorter.

Stephen Corey is the author of ten poetry collections and, most recently, Startled at the Big Sound: Essays Personal, Literary, and Cultural (Mercer University Press, 2017). In the spring of 2022, White Pine Press will publish his As My Age Then Was, So I Understood Them: New and Selected Poems, 1981-2022. In 2019, he retired as editor of The Georgia Review, with which he worked for thirty-six years.

1, 4 or 5 Stars: Why to Review Right Now

September 7, 2021 § 28 Comments

You can do something for me today. For every author you know. For even the authors you don’t. An act of literary citizenship that takes 7-10 minutes. Sure, you can spend time and/or money to be a literary citizen—hosting events, blogging, editing or reading for a journal—or contribute gently to your community by giving thoughtful feedback in your own writing group. But to actually help authors sell books, for free, right now:

Write a review.

Not “pitch a review to a literary publication,” although that’s great, too. Not “write a 900-word blog post balancing serious critique with just enough praise.” Not “read the book twice for fairness and highlight quotes and eventually put something up in a couple of months.” Just write and post a short review, right away.

  • Write a review of 3-10 sentences. Maybe quote one line you really liked.
  • Post to Amazon, where you can usually review even books you didn’t buy on Amazon. Copy your review before hitting “submit.”
  • Paste the review to Goodreads. (Goodreads accepts reviews even before the publication date, allowing for ARCs or having read the manuscript.)

Feeling ambitious, or you like the author? Take a photo of the book or the cover on your screen. No need to style like #bookstagram—next to your teacup or against your houseplants is fine. Post to your social media. Tag the author so they’ll see it and feel supported and can repost on their own social media…which might get you another couple followers. Citizenship always comes back around. Posting that photo with your Amazon review helps your review show up, and tells the algorithm you own the book (useful if you supported your local indie bookstore).

Should I wait to have time to write something “real”?

Amazon reviews are not serious discussions of literature. They guide buyers on the fence: Look, someone liked something I know I’ll like, too. Buy. Look, someone had an issue with a plot element that’ll bother me, too. Nope. Reviews help algorithms decide how many people will spontaneously see this book. More reviews (the best-guess “magic number” is 50) makes a book show up higher in search results. More people not specifically shopping for that book will see it, and some of them will buy it. Goodreads reviews are often more thoughtful, but review now rather than laboring over a paragraph truly reflecting your literary prowess.

What if I haven’t read the whole book?

Your review is more valuable to your friend than reading their whole book. Think about it: would you rather I email you in six months, “I finally finished your book and I loved it!” Or would you rather I post that sentiment on my socials during your release month, even if I’m not on the last page yet? (Authors: do not pop-quiz your friends on your book. Trust they read what spoke to them and be grateful. If they want to thoroughly discuss your plot choices, they’ll bring it up.)

…Shhh…I didn’t actually like my friend’s book…

Helpful reviews are no stars, four/five stars, or one star.

No stars: Hated the book? Don’t review it. For a friend’s book, pick a sentence you like (there’s one in there somewhere!) and quote it with a photo on social media. Tell your moral compass you’re not recommending the book…you’re observing that it exists, pointing out one good thing, and supporting your friend.

Four/five stars: If you liked the book enough to give your time to review, choose four or five stars. Didn’t like it four stars’ worth? Go back to the no-stars plan. Three stars says, “I think your work is…average.” Two stars says, “Your book sucks, but it didn’t raise my anger or disgust enough for one star.” If you wouldn’t say that to their face, don’t say it with your review.

One star: If a book you regret reading is by a stranger you will never need goodwill from, and it really irritated you, go for that one star! A trash review is better than tepid, as long as you’re specific about what you didn’t like. Your poison may be someone else’s champagne.

You want your friends’ support when it’s your turn. They need your support now. Maybe they’re not even your friend—maybe they’re an author you hope will blurb you one day. The best time to start publicly supporting future blurbers’ work with reviews and social media is two years before you ask them for that favor. The second-best time is now.

If you have time, if you have a mass media or literary venue, by all means read that book like it’s your job. Make extensive notes. Write a beautiful essay placing the book in context with the cultural moment and your own love of literature. But if that’s not what you’re doing, read enough to know what you like and write a quick-but-thoughtful review, right away. What have you read in the last six months? Other than bestsellers, those authors need your reviews. You will make their heart sing that someone, somewhere, recognized their artistic contribution to the world.

I’ve been writing reviews all year, making deposits in the Bank of Goodwill. And oh look, my book is out today! You don’t have to buy it or like it, and I won’t ever hold that against you. Most authors won’t even notice if you don’t review them. But we’ll sure remember it with joy if you do.


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her book, SEVEN DRAFTS: SELF-EDIT LIKE A PRO FROM BLANK PAGE TO BOOK is out today. Buy it at Bookshop.Org to support indie bookstores; go Amazon.com if corporate behemoth is your style. Ignore the “out of stock,” it’ll get there!

A Review of Ellen Blum Barish’s Seven Springs

September 3, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Marcia Meier

One of the things we know about memory is it’s faulty. Brain science also tells us that when something traumatic happens to us, our brains move to shut out or compartmentalize the trauma. Both cases apply in Ellen Blum Barish’s touching new book, Seven Springs.

When Barish was twelve, she was being driven home from school by a friend’s mom. The two girls were in the back seat, relieved to be picked up after a full day of school and after-school activities. A truck careened into the car at an intersection, and Ellen’s friend, Jenny, and Jenny’s mother and sister were seriously injured. Ellen suffered a lost front tooth.

The experience launched Ellen into a silence that she neither understood nor sought to understand for more than two decades. At their twenty-year high school reunion, Ellen and Jenny encountered one another again, and began a years-long exploration to uncover the truths that memory had obscured.

The title, Seven Springs, is from events that occurred in seven different springtimes. Moving back and forth in time, Barish masterfully weaves the story of her unfolding memories and her late-in-life embrace of her Jewish heritage and faith. Ultimately, Barish discovers long-hidden secrets about the accident and its aftermath, and she regains her childhood friendship with Jenny, plus finds new peace in her Jewish roots.

Barish’s parents were cultural but unobservant Jews, and she and her brother grew up with little understanding of the faith. She writes of her parents,

If asked, my parents would say they considered themselves Reform Jews, but in the loosest sense of the words. Neither was interested in ritual or tradition or their Jewish roots. There wasn’t a single prayer book or Shabbat candle or anything with a Hebrew letter anywhere in the house we grew up in….The only spiritual book I ever saw in the house was Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.

On the night of the accident, when her parents sent her to her room, still bleeding from her mouth, her grandmother showed up when she most needed comfort and succor. Her grandma, a devout Jew, came in, led Ellen to the bathroom and drew a warm bath, then sat with her as she settled into the soothing water. Then she toweled off Ellen, helped her into a warm nightgown, and led her back to bed. Many years later, Barish discovered her grandmother had cared for her in accordance with the Jewish tradition of bikur cholim, a Jewish etiquette for caring for the sick or injured. It was the beginning of Barish’s exploration of her Jewish heritage.

After meeting Jenny at the high school reunion, Barish began unraveling the mysteries of the accident, including why she had little memory post-accident and felt bereaved at her perception that her friend Jenny had stopped communicating with her. Barish discovers that her family sued Jenny’s family, a betrayal made more shocking by the fact the two families’ parents instructed their children not to talk about it or acknowledge it. Barish remembers only that for some reason her friend Jenny abandoned her after the accident. She couldn’t understand why her friend would stop talking to her.

But Jenny knew. Jenny spent months in a coma in the hospital, her sister and mother were seriously injured, and Jenny’s mom spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

When Barish sought enlightenment from her then seventy-something parents, her mother said she didn’t recall the details of the suit because that was her father’s doing. Barish’s father was equally as vague, and would only say his attorney advised them not to talk about it. Her father seemed to have been concerned only with recouping their medical expenses.

Ultimately, through renewed friendship with Jenny and her own search for meaning through faith, Barish comes to terms with the secrets she had stowed away or been shielded from.

As I read Seven Springs, I was struck by Barish’s determination to uncover not only the mysteries of the accident and its aftermath, but by her gentle persistence to unlock memories that had been deeply buried for decades. Some people who suffer trauma try to leave it in those locked-away places. That is what I did. I suffered a severe injury at the age of five, and endured twenty surgeries over the next fifteen years. When I went off to college, I stuffed all of that trauma down to a deep place and tried to ignore it for thirty years.

But trauma almost always resurfaces, either in response to an event that triggers the memory, or through the realization that it is affecting one’s life. Research has shown that unresolved trauma can lead to serious problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, inability to develop intimate ties with others, suicidal thoughts, and a host of other difficulties. While it may not seem important to others, it can sometimes mean life or death for the person struggling with it. For me, I was forced to revisit my trauma when at the age of fifty my life began to fall apart, and I ultimately came to realize I was experiencing many of the symptoms of complex trauma, including fear of intimacy, lack of self-esteem, and a tendency to abuse alcohol.

Barish’s brave memoir, Seven Springs, reminds us that understanding our trauma can be a first step toward healing. It also is a beautiful story of a blooming faith.


Marcia Meier is the author of Face, A Memoir, published by Saddle Road Press in January. Face was shortlisted for the 2021 Eric Hoffer Book Award grand prize and won honorable mention in the memoir category.

A Review of Joey Franklin’s Delusions of Grandeur

August 27, 2021 § 1 Comment

By Kate Madsen

In his essay collection Delusions of Grandeur, Joey Franklin boldly takes on the problematic, delusional thinking Americans embrace, sometimes consciously, but more often than not, unconsciously. In his introduction, Franklin makes his aims clear:

Certainly I am as inclined as anyone to run away from uncomfortable truths, but for too long, delusional thinking has been killing us softly, one narcissistic fairy tale at a time. As I approach middle age, I find myself less enamored of convenient myths and more willing to accommodate those uncomfortable truths—especially if they carry the promise of a little clarity.

Simultaneously, though, he assures readers of his modesty:

I have no idea how to free us all from the convenient, painful, persistent myths and delusions that dominate American life. . . . I harbor no delusion that any of this is going to change the world, but it has certainly changed me, and if Baldwin is right, then that’s at least a start.

Thus, the essays feel personal and sincere. They read very much as a thoughtful, critical examination of big topics wherein the essayist is determined to encounter and challenge his own thinking. 

I first read Franklin’s essays in the middle of the pandemic, much of it while camping on the mountainous, fraught public lands in Utah, the state in which Franklin lives and writes. Orange-clad hunters wielding rifles prowled around outside. Trump and confederate flags flew from trucks and hung in windows. Black Lives Matter activism was forefront in the media. The stakes of the 2020 election loomed. In short, I came to this book both steeped in and fatigued of political and social issues. The political factioning and gridlock extended into everyday, personal life as I feared I’d end up in a screaming match with someone I wanted (or needed) to get along with. I avoided discussions altogether—a coping mechanism. When I picked up Delusions of Grandeur, I was worried how I’d fare and whether I’d feel myself wanting to disengage from it too. Spoiler: I didn’t.

In the collection’s twelve essays, Franklin tackles gun lust, masculinity, war, America’s class system, the unhoused, racism, apocalypse, religion, and other timely subjects. These are big topics, and in less deft hands, they could easily get away from a writer who may end up producing pretentious and didactic essays that might hold themselves in too high a regard. However, Franklin is an essayist firmly grounded in the grand tradition of the essay, which he describes as

a curious, unassuming literary form with a predilection for skeptical self-examination, a firm conviction in the value of personal experience, and an abiding devotion to the interconnectivity of people and things. A genre that, at its best, contains all the necessary ingredients for a clear-headed engagement with the complicated nature of human life.  

And he delivers what he promises: curious essays, which aim high and are always grounded in the personal. Structurally, Franklin deftly blends reportage, ideology/philosophy, and personal narrative. He never lingers too long on one thread without reasserting the importance of the other two.

While all of the essays are a mix of the researched, the philosophical, and the personal, the overall arc of the book  is one of increasing intimacy and depth. The first third of the book mostly depicts Franklin as a father and a general citizen of the world as he discusses gunplay with his boys and ideas of what it means to be “good.” “The universe has blessed me with children,” he writes, “which is another way of saying the universe isn’t done proving I’m a hypocrite.”

In the second third of the book, Franklin writes about himself as a child and his parents’ influences on him. The essay “White Trash” is particularly memorable. Franklin writes of his father’s frequent joblessness and depression which left his mother, who was pregnant at sixteen and dropped out of high school, with the overwhelming responsibility, financial and otherwise, of their family.

In the last, most vulnerable third of the book, Franklin discusses vulnerability itself in “The Full Montaigne,” which also includes a discussion of Franklin’s father’s chronic depression and his uncle’s death. The final third also contains “Worry Lines,” an essay about Trayvon Martin’s death (racism and white privilege) as told through the lens of a white father raising white sons. He gave himself a difficult task, discussing racism as a straight, white, middle-class, Christian man in America. But Franklin allows himself to be vulnerable.

‘Empathy is tricky,’ writes journalist Sherronda J. Brown. ‘We can only identify with the pain of others through the understanding and profound feeling of our own suffering, but that only exists when we are able to recognize a shared vulnerability’ . . . . The only way that I get closer to understanding something that is otherwise unknowable to me is by trying to relate it as closely as I can to my own experiences and my own life. And that’s imperfect, but it’s the place I have to start.

Franklin invokes Montaigne when he writes: “Confessions [become] a problem only when done for the wrong reasons, when the essayist demands to be seen, instead of helping others see themselves.” Before opening Delusions of Grandeur, I was certain I was fatigued of ruminating on these large ideas. Upon closing it, I understood something new about myself: I didn’t want to step away from these topics. In fact, I craved discussion on them—but I needed a thoughtful, reflective voice to wade with me through my own comfortable delusions. I needed a calm, self-critical, and genuinely funny voice that helped me to see myself.

Kate Madsen holds an MFA from Texas State University. She was born and bred in Utah, where she still lives, now with her husband and daughter. She is currently at work on a collection of essays grappling with mortality upon her exit from Mormonism and her entrance into motherhood.

A Review of John Domini’s The Archeology of a Good Ragù

August 16, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Kass Fleisher

John Domini can write a sentence.

Prose is the great pleasure to be found in this book, The Archeology of a Good Ragù: Discovering Naples, My Father and Myself, a book that, contrary to its title, is not really about archeology per se. Nor is it about ragù, or self-discovery, or discovery of the hard-won revelations of a reticent father — and which book departs from autobiographical norms, despite the designated insistence of the Library of Congress.

Beyond a nod here and there, neither is this a history of Naples, one of the oldest cities in the world, and host to an endless succession of conquerors and builders — so much as an attempt to capture the aroma, flavors, and sounds of the city’s cobblestones. Call it an extended meditation on the Neapolitan.

Along the way, a virtual library of references pepper page after page — film, music, fine art, etc. Consider the audacity required to outfit an un-autobiographical autobiography, in a matter of a few pages, with references to Janus, the Sirens, Sophia Loren, Eat, Pray, Love, Mozart, Shelley (not Mary), Carlo Levi (not Primo), Brutalist architecture, Auschwitz — all while insisting, “I’ll find coherence in this crowded place.”

Spoiler alert: he does, and he doesn’t.

Which is part of the charm. And signals the chocolate-vanilla-strawberry temperament “in Napoli where love is king.”

To continue with what this is not: the narrator, who begins by describing two trips to Naples, one in the 70s (youth) and the other in the 90s (middle age), frequently mentions the “failure” of his marriage, but provides no detail. Subsequently we are reassured that he has remarried — a happy ending, it seems — but readers are not made privy to the development of this purported bliss, either.

Of course the Camorra toys ever in the background, such criminal organizations often looming in the perception of the Italian diaspora. Particularly, the narrator seeks to understand “the Italian man” — or, in this case, Neapolitan masculinity — and finds that such a man savors faintly of violence. The Godfather famously addressed the Sicilian diaspora, but Americans have fender-bended such tribes, describing the Camorra as a Mafia-type organization, even though the Camorra predates by centuries the Cosa Nostra of Coppola’s and Puzo’s imaginings.

In fact, in Domini’s only sustained autobiographical episode, regarding his daughter’s post-divorce addiction, the narrator becomes the Camorra, he says, not least by rifling through his daughter’s secreted belongings in search of pills.

Secrets reign in this text — as long as they aren’t fact-check-able by the bibliognost that is our author.

Only a writer of considerable moxie would interrupt a sexy scene, in which the narrator is being painted shirtless by an attractive woman, with a reference to Elena Ferrante’s Naples Quartet. He owes Ferrante more than a slight nod of homage — not for her portrayals of the mob, of which we get but a brief whiff here, but rather for her freewheeling narrative structure. It’s from the Quartet that he takes leave not simply to adjourn a possible carnal interlude, but instead, as he says, “get back to the volcanoes” that loom over Napoli and endlessly threaten the city’s existence. Indeed, he takes Ferrante’s leave to squeeze, into single paragraph after single paragraph, the dual, separate trips, 70s and 90s crammed into one scoria after another.

What keeps us eager to turn the page, one might ask, given such narrative interruptus?

Domini can write a sentence.

We have the sprinkling of something of a pidgin, with davvero and riposo and fidanzato scanned impeccably into English sentences, rhythm outshouting everything so flawlessly that that one begins to regret the use of italics. And we have the typical Domini color on our “John-journey”: “fungous green” blocks on an ancient building; the “sulfurous lunar landscape” of one of the dangerous volcanoes; but meanwhile, in a photograph, a “shadow puddled at my father’s feet,” his father looking like a “tightly coiled screen urbanite.”

“[I]t’s strange how well I remember,” the narrator says of Napoli.

Few memoirists would risk such hubris.

But we end these purposeful morsi of incoherence, like the puddled shadow, with the post-memory aroma of mobs. The Camorra in Naples, the Crips and Bloods in L.A., where the narrator frequently visits — another city incessantly threatened by, but stubbornly resisting, multiple menaces. We get, too, the Mexican eMe and Korean Triads.

So it’s everywhere, this tribe-based violence. Or so we conclude, in the conclusion.

Thus we might well find ourselves at one with the narrator in his final words: “I’m nothing without Naples, but then if you ask me, neither are all the hymns raised, and all the husks left rotting, across our entire vertiginous world.”

Dizzy are we in this world, then. As is he. But take Nietzsche’s advice: “Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius!”

For whatever reason — and we, like Domini, are nothing if not grateful for same — Neapolitans quite literally have, millennia before Nietzsche’s exhortation. In this alone, we discover the Neapolitan that Domini seeks.


Kass Fleisher is the author of Talking out of School: Memoir of an Educated Woman, the novel Dead Woman Hollow, and other works.

A Review of Catherine Klatzker’s You Will Never Be Normal

July 26, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Debbie Hagan

I didn’t really understand dissociative identity disorder before I read Catherine Klatzker’s memoir, You Will Never Be Normal. I had read Sybil, in the early 1970s, about a young woman, Shirley Mason, who exhibited sixteen distinct personalities and had a condition then called multiple personality disorder. The book became bestseller, then a blockbuster film. Then Mason confessed, she’d invented most of it.

Today, the psychiatric community believes an individual has just one personality, but trauma can shatter or fragment it. This condition is now referred to as dissociative identity disorder or DID.

“Up to seventy-five percent of people experience at least one depersonalization/derealization episode in their lives,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. That means most of us will experience this.

When it happened to Klatzker, she thought she was going insane. “I used to creep around in the gloom, the walls felt cold and I could barely see my way,” she writes. “All the years of darkness, of not knowing where my voices came from, the loss of bodily control—I shuddered when I recalled how much I’d wanted to just get rid of my intrusive Parts….” Voices screamed and “howled wordlessly” at her. Life became a “nightmare.” A therapist, Dr. Lew, would lead her on a journey back through various traumas in her life, looking for moments that chipped away at her psyche.

Klatzker grew up with a temperamental, domineering father who lorded over his wife and thirteen children. When she was small, he’d hold his hand over her mouth and roughly touch her privates. He’d drink too much, then bully and rage at the family. This confused her, as a child, because he could also be generous and thoughtful.

“If I spoke poorly of my father to friends, the response I got, spoken and unspoken, was that I wasn’t trying hard enough,” she writes. This shame and silence would add to her confusion, self-doubt, and shame.

At sixteen, Klatzker read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and found personal meaning in his writing: “I wanted to live my life deliberately, to learn what life had to teach and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

At seventeen, she escaped her chaotic home and moved in with a man, thirteen years older than her, who had been married twice and had children. By eighteen, Klatzker had a son with him. Two months later, the father of her child died of a heart attack.  

Klatzker had just finished high school, and was now a mother and a widow with no job, no skills, no college education, no money, no future, and no one to save her. She couch-surfed, worked menial jobs, and did whatever she had to do to take care of herself and her son. In time, she would find a life partner, marry, have more children, go to college, and become a critical care nurse.

Even though she made it, the ghosts of the past would haunt her.  

Until reading Klatzker’s book, I never thought I had experienced anything like DID. However, her book caused me to reflect back on a curious incident when I was eight years old. An older boy had sexually molested me. When my mother found out, she yelled and screamed at me and told me how ashamed she was of me and how she would get my father to spank me with his belt. I was far more terrified of her and my father’s belt than anything the neighbor boy had done. My mother remained angry for a very long time, which only added to my anxiety and shame.  

I escaped by becoming a horse called Midnight.

For about three years, I was this beautiful black stallion. I would disappear for hours neighing and bucking up and down the sidewalks, galloping along the train tracks, then dropping by the town stable to visit the other horses. As Midnight, I was sleek, smart, and invincible—no longer a girl who had shamed her mother.

If my father spotted me prancing up and down the street, he’d chase me, flailing his arms, and yelling, “Stop this! Stop it now! People will think you’re crazy.”

Yet, maybe I was. I couldn’t stop. I was Midnight.

“I didn’t know it was shame I was feeling,” writes Klatzker in her memoir. “I was hiding from that feeling. I needed to hide. I couldn’t articulate the why of that because I hid it: that I was bad. I didn’t know where those feelings came from, and they scared me.”

I felt something like that, and it scared me too.     

Klatzker’s memoir tells of a courageous woman who has lived through several traumas and, with the help of a therapist, takes control over the voices terrorizing her. It’s a great story of recovery told with hope and humor.

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.

A Review of Lee Martin’s Gone the Hard Road

June 30, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Debbie Hagan

On November 3, 1956, author Lee Martin was just a toddler when a farm accident changed his family forever. His father, Roy Martin, had been harvesting corn in the fields, near Sumner, Illinois, when the shucking box clogged. Instead of shutting off the machine, he reached in to loosen the obstruction. This split-second error took both of his hands, and he’d live the rest of his life with steel hooks.

A father with hooks cannot play games, cannot throw a baseball, cannot toss his son into the creek. He cannot reach up on the dime store shelf and pull down the tent that his son cries to have. When the store attendant brings it down, the father cannot open his wallet and pay for it. His wife, Beulah, has to do that. When his son needs tenderness, a father with hooks cannot stroke his son’s hair or place a warm hand on his back.

 “At first I didn’t know enough to understand how his accident had put a barrier between the two of us, but I know it now,” Lee Martin writes. In his first memoir From Our House, Martin tells about the accident and how it changed his father from a “friendly sort,” as his uncle would describe, to a bitter and angry man.  

As Martin grew up, he and his father would physically fight, while his mother, Beulah, looked on and begged them to stop. In the aftermath, she would remind her son, “Your father loves you and you love him. You wouldn’t get so angry with each other if you didn’t.”

Gone the Hard Road is a follow-up to his first memoir, told in thirteen connected essays. It focuses on his mother, a compassionate woman, who, in spite of her family’s hardships, remains positive and optimistic. She encourages Martin to look on the bright side, “count your blessings,” and  “think of everything good in your life.”

Being a school teacher, she knows literature can build character, expand a child’s imagination, open up alternate worlds, and change a child’s life. Like many parents in the 1960s, Beulah enrolls her son in a book club. New titles such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Penrod and Sam, The Prince and the Pauper, and At the Back of the North Wind, arrive every month.

Once time, when Martin is left alone in the cab of his father’s truck, he finds his latest book club selection tucked under the front seat. He puzzles, then realizes his father had slid it out of sight, so he could send it back before he’d even seen it. The boy rips open the package and finds Captain Courageous.

When his father returns, he’s angry and calls his son a snoop. This makes Martin cry, whereupon his father warns, he’ll give him “something to cry about.”

Once they’re home, though, Beulah, in her gentle way, reminds the father that the book belongs to Martin. Thus, Captain Courageous stays and young Martin is spared another belt lashing.

Maybe everyone reading Lee Martin feels the way I do. His stories are so human, so truthful, they could easily be about me.  

My father was a hot-tempered man, who argued and fought with me for reasons I’ll never fully understand. Like Beulah, my mother loved books, and taught me to sit down, be quiet, find a book, and set my troubles free.

I can’t count the number of times books saved me. I could travel to the Wild West…to the jungles of Africa…to the Bronx Zoo…to galaxies light years away. As long as I had a book, I could go anywhere, be anyone. As I approached high school, I began reading stories that weren’t just adventures and fantasies, but stories in which authors drew upon their own lives, such as Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pearl S. Buck, John Steinbeck, and others. I wanted to be them…travel far…see the world.

Martin’s title, Gone the Hard Road, is an idiom referring to choosing the more difficult path in hopes of achieving a better result, which, of course, reflects Martin’s own journey. However, the phrase in southeastern Illinois, can also be used to describe someone who leaves the rural gravel path and hits the hard asphalt going into town…or the city. Martin’s mother had prepared him to hit the hard road to college and onto life as a writer, storyteller, and educator.

“No matter how far I’ve come from the country kid I was,” writes Martin, “I can never forget the family we were: my kind mother, who loved books; my wounded father, whose intense love often got swallowed up inside his rage; and me, the only child, eager to escape my life and to immerse myself in someone else’s story.”  

In Gone the Hard Road, Martin tells his story of growing up in rural Illinois with great passion, love, and undying hope.

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.

A Review of Marcia Meier’s Face: A Memoir

June 11, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Lisa Rizzo

At seven years old I fell out of bed, slicing open my chin. I woke up with blood pouring onto the rug. My mother scooped me up, pressing a towel to my face as my father sped through empty streets to the hospital. The towel, originally white with a bright polka-dots, slowly turned red.

I tried not to cry at the stinging shot of Novocain and a blue cloth placed over my face. Overhead lights shone through the material turning the shadow of the doctor’s hands into terrifying five-legged animals. No pain but the tug of needle and thread piercing my skin. Afterwards, I shivered at the row of black stitches crawling like a spider out of my face. Now the only reminder of that night is a thin white scar across the bottom of my chin.

My experience, while frightening, cannot compare to the devastating, life-threatening injuries Marcia Meier suffered as a five-year-old. Her book, Face: A Memoir, shortlisted for the 2021 Eric Hoffer Book Award grand prize and an honorable mention in the memoir category, opens on a bright summer day in Muskegon, Michigan. Marcia, proud that she has just learned to ride her new red bicycle, was in the middle of a crosswalk near her home when she was struck by a car. She writes:

I had been dragged, caught with my bike under the car, nearly two hundred feet…
I was lying on the street under the driver’s side. The bike was stuck under the carriage;
I was still holding the handlebars. The left side of my face was gone.

She begins recounting her recovery with the question What is a face?  Her memoir asks the reader to consider what a face represents to a person as well as those around her, and how losing that familiar face could affect who we become. Weaving the past and present together, Meier seeks answers to help her heal. Using a braided structure, she moves deftly from the voice of a hurt child to that of the reflective adult seeking to make sense of how that initial trauma influenced her life.

Meier spent her childhood in and out of hospitals, enduring twenty surgeries until, as a teenager, she gained the courage to refuse more operations. With her injuries partially mended, she began to build a better life for herself: graduation from college with a degree in journalism, a successful newspaper career, marriage, and motherhood.

A few days before her wedding, Meier’s father gave her an envelope filled with photographs and documents related to her medical treatments. Unable to face them, Meier tucked the packet away along with other unwanted items in a storage unit, just as she tucked away thoughts of those treatments, believing she had accepted her past and its scars. But in 2006 when her marriage began to fall apart, Meier realized she had to confront her childhood.

Many of the book’s chapters open with epigraphs using excerpts from the surgeon’s notes of her procedures. In much the same way that Joan Didion returns again and again to her husband’s heart attack in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, these notes create a circular pattern, returning to the little girl in her hospital bed before spiraling into future events. The repetition of medical terms reminds the reader of the terror Meier as a child must have endured, even as she deals with how that suffering influenced the adult she became.

Similarly, Meier cycles back to the people in her life: her mother and father, husband and daughter, siblings, the clergy and nuns of her parish, and the surgeon who reconstructed her face. This highlights her struggle to understand how the aftermath of her accident affected them as well as her relationships, particularly with her mother. Even as her mother kept vigil at her hospital bed, she remained emotionally distant from her child. Meier seeks answers to what happened between them and how her mother’s own tragedies influenced their interactions.

Meier makes good use of her background as a journalist by including investigation into subjects such as Jungian psychology, the history of skin grafts as well as research about childhood complex trauma. This information is skillfully woven, moving from objective facts to personal narrative, giving the reader the impression of the author stepping back now and again before coming close to confront the extent of her pain.

This is a memoir of self-discovery on both physical and emotional levels. Meier learns to accept her body scarred from skin grafts as well as her damaged face through horseback riding as a teenager and practicing yoga as an adult. She learns to accept her mother’s distance with empathy. She confronts her feelings of betrayal by her religion, recognizing that she blamed her parish priests and nuns for not giving her the solace she craved. And, most importantly, she learns compassion for herself, accepting the wounded child she was and in some respects will always be.

In the end, Meier returns to Muskegon where her story began, completing the cycle. She makes a pilgrimage to the important places of childhood: her family home, the site of her former school, the intersection where she was struck by the car. Completing the cycle by facing those places from her past helps Meier begin the next part of her journey.

Lisa Rizzo is a poet who has to turned nonfiction. She is the author of Always a Blue House (Saddle Road Press, 2016) and In the Poem an Ocean (Big Table Publishing, 2011). Her work has appeared in various journals including Calyx, Longridge Review, The MacGuffin, and Brevity blog. A newly retired teacher, she lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where she is working on a memoir. Visit her at www.lisarizzowriter.com.

Review of Cassandra Lane’s We Are Bridges

May 26, 2021 § 2 Comments

by Melissa Greenwood

When a former writing mentor suggested I might enjoy Cassandra Lane’s book We Are Bridges—a memoir about ancestral trauma—I bristled. What could I possibly have in common with this story? Yet, (to borrow from the title), good writing acts as a bridge, connecting writer to reader, and Lane, who won a Louise Meriwether First Book Prize, is a master with her pen.

I was ashamed of my initial resistance when it turned out that Lane and I have a great deal in common: an appreciation for tea and “big green cast-iron pot[s]”; attendance at the same MFA program, albeit during different decades; careers as reporters, then teachers (incidentally, we were both formerly teacher’s pets); Los Angeles addresses (I was born and reared here, but Lane has called LA home for twenty years now); and much more. However, the most striking similarity is that neither of us wanted children. Lane writes, “I’m never having children…Never…Never. Never. Never.” She changes her mind. I have not.

But this memoir isn’t about me, and it’s not even really about Lane. The book is about “ancestral trauma,” specifically, a “psychological need,” nagging at Lane all her life, “to get at the root of family questions” arising from her great-grandfather Burt’s lynching. It’s also about a “generational trail of broken people” and “trauma ghosting—the body’s ability to ‘remember’ a trauma that happened earlier in life or in an ancestor’s life.” It’s about “generations of trauma” and about “injuries that originate in the womb: wounds of slavery, lynching, and domestic violence.” More than anything, it’s about how Lane’s “pregnancy boomeranged [her] back to [her] family and [their] past…called [her] back to [her] ancestors.”  

Lane strives to shield her future son from the “leftover trauma” passed down to her, about which she says, “My body is a river, a channel…my body knew.” She shares memories of stories recounted to her by loved ones as part of her personal narrative, as well as imagined memories from her ancestors’ perspective; for these, she uses the present tense to differentiate from her own known story. The message is this: Burt may have been killed nearly seventy years before the author’s birth, but his too-short Black life still matters in the present day. (Lane thanks the Black Lives Matter movement in her acknowledgements, noting that violence against Black bodies, especially male ones, continues.)

Lane’s pregnancy is the bridge, if you will, to Burt’s experience. She writes, “With Solomon’s birth, Burt will live again, breathe again…with a new generation growing inside me…I [am] thirsty for knowledge.” And the narrator repeats this sentiment a third time: “The decision to give birth”—the very thing she swears she’ll never do and thought she never wanted—“connects me to my past.” Here, repetition acts to reaffirm the importance of Lane’s pregnancy as a connection to Great-Grandpa Burt and early 1900s Mississippi, collapsing time in a way that blends present with past. Repetition is just one of the literary devices Lane uses. Turn to any page, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to find a number of similes. These could feel forced or overwritten. Instead, Lane’s prose is lyrical and rife with descriptive figurative language. The sun is “a dim disk.” The Atlantic Ocean is “vacation green.” Burt’s skin is “the shade of hay left out in the sun.”  

Lane’s tendency to draw upon the senses sharpens the violence about which she writes. There are “the white men with their guns and their pitchfork hearts, the law with its blind eye.” There is the hanging tree, an oak—an “unwilling accomplice to Burt’s murder [that]…must have moaned from deep within its belly”—a “centuries-old howl…releasing sticky tears that drip[ped] like molasses.” There are her own father’s “heavy fists” pounding into her pregnant mother’s back. There are whippings with “plum-tree” switches that sting. There are also, in her family history, other violations: merciless beatings and even molestation—wrongs that can never be righted. As Lane aptly muses: “The art of torture is a thing passed down.” 

But for all of the violence, there is love for Lane’s unborn son with whom her “heart is threaded” (it was this “‘miracle’ pregnancy” that set her on the quest to uncover her past); for Lane’s “foremothers”—the fierce women who shaped her and whose names she “will always hold…in [her] heart”; and for the ancestors she carries inside her still, especially the eponymous Mr. Bridges, whom she “wrote…into existence” by saying and repeating his name—Burt Bridges, Burt Bridges, Burt Bridges—until the name became a part of her, a part of us: We are Bridges.

Melissa Greenwood has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing (CNF) from Antioch University Los Angeles. This is her third book review for Brevity, and she has written others for Lunch Ticket, Annotation Nation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Melissa lives in LA with her husband and works as a Pilates instructor, writing and reading CNF when she isn’t at the “studio,” which, in present pandemic-times, is actually her living room.

A Review Kate Lebo’s The Book of Difficult Fruit

May 5, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Jehanne Dubrow

A is for appetite. I come to The Book of Difficult Fruit, because I am writing a manuscript about our sense of taste. I suppose you could say I’m hungry for any text about devouring.

B is for body. Kate Lebo begins with it. The fruits she examines are sometimes food, but just as often medicine, cordials, and balms that might heal the ill parts of ourselves.

C is for cancer: perhaps the book’s most painful fruit of all.

D is for difficult. Lebo cautions us that, for her, “fruit is not the smooth-skinned, bright-hued, waxed and edible ovary of the grocery store.” Instead, she understands fruit as a thing that invades or poisons or rots. Her book reflects this difficulty, resisting the linear and asking us to reach from one prickly bite to the next.

E is for exposition. There are occasional tastes of it.

F is for fragmentation, because the book is an abecedarian providing the kinds of surprises we expect from the form. See: Miłosz’s ABC’s. See: Companion to an Untold Story. See: Letter to a Future Lover.

G is for gorgeous, as when the narrator discovers a lump in her breast, saying it is “the size of a blueberry.” Allowed to grow, it might become “a plum, then a grapefruit, then a melon,” delicious in its terror.

H is for hybridity. If Lebo’s writing were a fruit, it would be a plumcot or a tangelo, a hybrid of sour and sweet.

I is for inquiry. “Why bother with inedible fruit?” the narrator asks. It offers “delight,” she tells herself and then wants to know why—why find pleasure in something that cannot be consumed?

J is for Jehanne. Yes, here I am again, highlighting passages I plan to quote in my own essays.

K is for Kate. In the book’s quick movement from fruit to fruit, we develop a feeling that we know the Kate presented on the page, her voice intimate as dinner with a close friend.

L is for lyrical. Writing about the famously malodorous durian, Lebo describes the danger of its spiked rind. “Falling fruit can kill,” she explains. “One must not loiter under the durian tree.”

M is for meditative. This is a book that loiters beneath thorny ideas about the body, how we hurt or heal. In a chapter about juniper berries, Lebo circles from gin to abortion to neti pots to recipe for bitters.

N is for nonlinear, as in the book moves straight through the alphabet but not through the story.

O is for origins. By researching the beginnings of difficult fruit—the Osage orange, for example—Lebo uncovers the sources of the self. The narrator too is difficult and spined.

P is for pain, which is the fruitful antonym of pleasure.

Q is for quiet. Between each letter of the alphabet, there’s a small silence. Lebo respects the quiet of the inter-alphabetical, as we move from Q to R.

R is for recipes. Every chapter ends with one. We learn how to prepare gooseberry cheese, red wine vinegar, quince jelly.

S is for satiation. When I finish The Book of Difficult Fruit, I feel full, as if I have eaten a meal that challenged me, some of its courses not easily swallowed.

T is for thorns. See the book’s epigraph: “If sweetness makes fruits desirable, there must also be sharpness: no rose without a thorn. The palate rejects blandness even when attracted by sweetness.”

U is for ugly—certainly, one antidote to the bland is the unattractive.

V is for verse. Poets are everywhere in The Book of Difficult Fruit, perhaps because poetry is so well suited to revealing the sweet interior beneath the bitter peel.

W is for well. In a chapter about her autoimmune disease, Lebo writes:

My mother disagrees. For thirty-five years, she’s pursued the cure for pain. Why would she be satisfied with stasis?

“I will figure this out,” she says. For me. For herself.

“I am closer than ever,” she says.

I want to believe her. I want us to be well.

X is for the toxicity of xylitol, a chemical compound found in certain fruits.

Y is for you. Lebo wants you close when she’s making jam or syrup. She warns you, as though you stand beside her in the orchard: “Be advised that yuzu trees have thorns. While picking fruit, beware.”

Z is for zucchini, the final chapter in the book.

Jehanne Dubrow is author of nine poetry collections, including most recently Wild Kingdom (LSU Press, 2021) and a book-length essay, throughsmoke: an essay in notes (New Rivers Press, 2019). Her nonfiction has appeared in Brevity as well as in New England Review, Colorado Review, The Common, and Image. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas.

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