A Review of Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System

March 21, 2017 § 1 Comment

huber_frontby Vivian Wagner

This is a book about pain. Chronic, searing, never-ending pain—a pain that’s shaped Sonya Huber’s life for years. It’s also a book about the language of pain, the discourse of pain, and her gradual movement toward being able to talk and write about her experience with this mysterious thing that dominates her life.

As someone who hasn’t yet experienced chronic pain, I relied on Huber to draw me into her world, to show me what it feels like, to allow me to begin to understand an experience that many of us will, eventually, know first-hand. And she takes on this project masterfully, introducing her readers to pain just as she might introduce a family member. By the end of the book, I’d begun to see my current pain-free state as an aberration, as a temporary fiction, and I was grateful that she’d facilitated my entry into a world that is, in many ways, more real than the one I inhabit.

Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System is fragmented and disjointed, much like pain itself. She circles around her subject, assaying it, exploring it. Reading the book, therefore, offers an almost visceral experience. To shape this experience, the essays are filled with metaphors. In the first essay, for instance, “Lava Lamp of Pain,” pain is compared to “evil pink evening gloves,” a predatory bird, and a criminal.

Pain, though, exceeds the boundaries of metaphors and, ultimately, language itself. Huber wants to describe and delineate this experience, but it always escapes her grasp. Chronic pain, we learn through these lilting, lyrical essays, remains mysterious, even though it’s indelibly and inescapably connected to her body and sense of self.

Huber also emphasizes that eventually, pain is part of most of our lives. It is, in this way, more constant and reliable than a lack of pain. In “Welcome to the Kingdom of the Sick,” she examines and interrogates the constancy and steadiness of pain. The essay opens with the following line: “When I am ill, only the kingdom of the ill is of comfort.” The kingdom of the ill, she says, is paradoxically more predictable and grounded than the kingdom of the healthy:

What I learn is that the kingdom of the ill is a vast bedrock. We appear weak and reclined, yet we cannot be invaded or defeated. Look at us: We are unbreakable in our brokenness. We cannot be cured and are therefore invincible.

In other words, far from being illusory, the kingdom of the ill is, in a way, more “real” than the kingdom of the well. As she says “We are real, and only illness reveals the true bedrock of illness. It is not imaginary. This land is the most reliable and most vast of the human experience.” As she grapples with feeling abnormal for being in chronic pain, Huber comes to realize that there’s nothing more normal, ultimately, than pain.

The arc of this collection moves toward the final essay, “Inside the Nautilus,” which is a moving account of Huber’s introduction to the McGill Pain Questionnaire. Unlike other pain rating systems, she finds that this questionnaire gets closest to providing a language for describing pain. It asks, for instance, “what does your pain feel like?” and then offers what she calls a “transfixing list of words.” Under the category of brightness, it suggests “itchy, tingling, smarting, and stinging.” Elsewhere, the questionnaire allows the respondent to choose from the following descriptors: “punishing, grueling, cruel, vicious, and killing.”

Immediately, Huber loves this questionnaire, because it provides a language for expressing her pain. During much of her experience with pain, she describes feeling marginalized and shunned, but when she discovers this questionnaire she feels validated. The questionnaire provides a kind of poetry of pain, and it lends a sense of reality to her experience. As she says, “I savored the form with a quiet outpouring of affection one reserves for sensitive thinkers and researchers whose work plumbs the core of human experience.”

Finally, it’s not so much the questionnaire, but this essay collection itself that allows Huber to develop her own pain discourse. Through these essays, she speaks the unspeakable. She gives form to the formless. She shapes the difficult reality of her daily life into a narrative that ties her experience with the broader human condition. And ultimately, through writing, she finds what she calls at the end of her final essay a “poetry within.”

A few weeks after finishing the book, I had surgery to remove a spot of cancer from my nose, and in the temporary pain of the recovery process, I found myself thinking of Huber’s essays. I caught a brief glimpse of someone I’d gotten to know through her writing—someone who will, most likely, become a more constant companion as I age. And this, ultimately, is Huber’s gift with Pain Woman Takes Your Keys. She recognizes our shared frailty, and she offers compassionate encouragement to tell its story.


Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and a poetry collection, The Village.

Review of Lisa Knopp’s Bread: A Memoir of Hunger

March 17, 2017 § 1 Comment

ProductImageHandlerBy Sierra Dickey

Bread: A Memoir of Hunger, with its yeast-bubble cover art, screams anorexia memoir from all surfaces. In fact, when I found myself carrying it around one evening with a to-go slice of chocolate cake in my other hand, I realized I might have looked a bit troubled, or, oppositely, totally recovered and beyond reproach. This teeter-tot line between disorder and recovery, or malady and remission, is the liminal space Knopp inhabits best in her book.

Bread is much more a full life memoir than an eating disorder memoir. Writing comes up often, and spirituality is everywhere.

With her title “a memoir of hunger,” Knopp doesn’t mean just the hunger I feel now because it’s late in the day and I ate lunch early. She means all of our human hungers: for justice, for love, for meaning. The first chapters make an inventory of longings, and bit by bit, Knopp slowly shows us how she’s come to satiate herself.

I haven’t experienced the “malady” of disordered eating as deeply and consistently as Knopp has. However, early in the book, when she describes the quiet “click and shift” that happened in her brain the first time she began to enjoy and succeed at restricting food, I remembered the summer after my junior year of high school when I dropped 10 pounds in a month.

That summer, I brought Ziploc bags of red things to the beach with me, and a towering Nalgene of water. The red things in separate bags were strawberry Twizzlers and slices of sweet red pepper. I relished the count: a single Twizzler contains 5 calories, a single slice of sweet pepper far less. That summer, too, I ran 2.5 miles every evening and lugged a nearly 50-pound stand-up paddle board to the shore every morning, giddily awaiting the next day’s upper body ache.

I can identify with the somewhat sublime process of extreme dieting, and I suspect many women who read Knopp’s memoir will find her food and body image intricacies familiar. All readers will appreciate the sharp analysis Knopp brings to historic and current research on disordered eating. Bread is the kind of socio-cultural memoir that will change how you look at your friends, especially those who are “on a diet.”

Though Knopp draws lots of fascinating points and parallels from her lit-review, she occasionally stacks the pile of articles perilously high. In “Chapter Six: Hardwired,” nine pages of recounted university studies make the chapter begin to lose its punch. Knopp’s focus on the biological causes and symptoms of anorexia and bulimia also felt to me like a negation of the absurd social contexts that birthed these diseases in the first place. Why not point more rage toward the patriarchy and media machines?

As with all things culture, and all things mental health, it was just more complicated than that. Indeed, the most unexpected insight of Bread is that for those with disordered eating histories, the “malady” is the rage at the machine. It is the protest and the concession both at once. As Knopp writes, “Part of my identification with my malady is that I’m so drawn to the metaphors, the contradictions, and the striking tensions associated with it: restricting as the problem and solution, as refuge and prison….”

Out of all, bread the food is Knopp’s favorite high-tension metaphor, and she does an exquisite job of excavating its historical meanings for us along the way. In “Chapter Two: White Bread,” we enter her Iowan childhood just in time for the rise of Wonder Bread, and other ingestible “industrial marvels.” Using a cue taken from her writing heroine Annie Dillard, Knopp succeeds at transforming bread from a plain fact to a “symbolic fact,” one that stands for all the “tantalizing paradoxes” of her life.

Sierra Dickey writes, walks, and organizes from Brattleboro, Vermont. Find her on Twitter @DierraSickey, or read her work in Coming of Age at the End of Nature from Trinity University Press.

About a Microwave

March 16, 2017 § 11 Comments

31qKXbCJokLBy Dinty W. Moore

I am reviewing a blank book.  The pages are entirely empty – not a single word.  That makes it nonfiction, yes?

Because there is no fiction printed within.

And the title is Alternative Facts.

Facts are nonfiction, yes?

This is important, because the Brevity blog only reviews books of nonfiction.

So here is my review:

It is an interesting book. A quick read. The paper is nice. The cover feels solid. The entire package fits neatly in your hand.

By the way, royalties from sales of the book are being donated to ProPublica by the publisher, Abrams. ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.

So there we go.  More facts. More nonfiction.

61Pta82itsLI am beginning to feel pretty good about my book review. I might write some of my good feelings down – in the book, on the blank pages (shown to the left).

Something like this:

“I’m feeling very good about my review.”

Except, hold your horses. (Not literally! “Hold your horses” is just a metaphor.)

But it seems I’ve told a lie here.

So is this review now fiction?

Or is it back to nonfiction, as soon as I admit to the lie.

I don’t know. Ask D’Agata.

But there are, after all, words in this book, but only a very few, printed on the very last page:

Two days into the Trump presidency, the thesaurus gained a new synonym for falsehoods, lies, distortion, deception, and total BS (take your pick). The phrase “alternative facts” has sparked laughter at its absurdity, but also disbelief and fear that this administration shows no hesitation in blatantly rewriting the truth to fit its narrative.

In response, this journal offers the opportunity to ground yourself in reality, to collect and record in writing whatever you wish, and to record your own alternative facts.

Pretty cool, huh?

Here’s an Alternative Fact: I am being spied upon, at this very moment, by my microwave. Someone in Russia is watching me write this review. He or she, I can’t be sure, is quite bored by it all.

Dobroye utro!


Dinty W. Moore is founding editor of Brevity magazine and this blog as well. He is being spied upon, at this very moment, by his microwave

A Review of Ariel Leve’s An Abbreviated Life: A Memoir

March 13, 2017 § 3 Comments

zz leve_By Jennifer Ochstein

When my brother and I acted out as children, my mother threatened us with exile. If we fought, she said she’d drop us on our father’s doorstep. And if we were really bad, say, if we refused to eat our cheeseburger-flavored Hamburger Helper, she’d leave us with our maternal grandmother, Barb. She said she loved us, but if we couldn’t shape up she’d be left with no alternative. If we refused to be civil with each other or woke her up before noon on a Saturday morning or were disgusted by congealed fake cheese and greasy meat, clearly we didn’t love her or want to live with her. At least this is how I, as a seven-year-old, translated her adult-speak.

In my mind, being left with my father was equivalent to being left with someone who clearly didn’t want us since, my mother said, he refused to pay child support. I didn’t think I was assuming too much. After all, we never saw him. Who knows where we’d end up if left in his care? On the other hand, being left with Barb was far worse. She’d knock our heads together. We didn’t know how good we had it, my mother warned. Barb had beaten her so badly she couldn’t lie down on her back for a week. Rather than beat us herself, she’d leave it to her mother.

It turned out I had good reason to believe my mother would leave us. Once, when I was eight, she left us for six months with my best friend’s family. From there, we lived with my father for four months. I thought my brother and I had finally gone too far; we’d finally chased our mother away for good. I didn’t find out until later that we were suddenly homeless, and my mother couldn’t bear the thought of my brother and I sleeping in a freezing car with her that night. She’d had no other choice.

What becomes of children with unstable parents? This might be the central question of Ariel Leve’s 2016 memoir, An Abbreviated Life: A Memoir. In a conversation between forty-five-year-old Leve and her father, Leve’s father asks, “‘Why can’t you just beat those demons and destroy them?’” Leve responds, “‘You mean why can’t I just get over it.’”

Leve writes, “It’s illogical to him that I would be a thinking person who can’t control my thoughts.”

Her father goes on to say, “‘Or if you can’t get over it, then deal with it in a rational, sensible mature way. Which you’re capable of doing with other kinds of decisions.’”

The “why-can’t-you-get-over-it” question dogs some people. For others, like a novelist that Leve interviews, the experience of childhood abuse and instability is an exercise in pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, which Leve suggests, is “intolerant of any alternative.” Leve takes the opposite view with the novelist: “‘There are certain people who have been front-loaded with trauma that shapes who they are. They are disabled. Psychologically. And this does not make them victims. It makes them soldiers.’”

Leve seems to become a kind of soldier in her memoir. She recounts brief snapshots, memories with her mother. These memories are like individual bullets that whiz over her head: the time when her mother told her that when she was dead, Leve would be all alone because her father wouldn’t want her; playing a game called “Being Born,” in which Leve’s mother literally re-enacts young Ariel’s birth; the times when her mother told her that if Leve didn’t behave she’d have a nervous breakdown and end up in Bellevue or that she’d commit suicide. Leve ducks to avoid getting her head blown off, but she lives with invisible post-traumatic stress.

One therapist reveals that Leve likely has brain damage. “‘There are parts of your brain that did not develop the way they should have. And the way you function is a consequence,’” the therapist tells her. Leve writes that she’s incredulous, but she wonders, “how does a child build a foundation on quicksand?”

Ultimately, Leve discovers, in part, that children learn adaptive coping mechanisms that don’t often translate well into adulthood. For example, Leve discovers that because she’s protected herself “from feeling the horrible things,” she’s often numb to the good.

She has to learn to live differently with her damaged brain. Leve watches and learns from the young daughters of the man with whom she is in a relationship. In order to help them grow emotionally mature, she is careful when she speaks to them, allowing them to feel and express their full range of emotions so that they can learn how to control those emotions in productive ways. In juxtaposing her experience with those little girls, Leve’s memoir itself becomes a redemptive act of emotional freedom that allows her to remember the instability and trauma of her childhood as she gives herself the permission to simply feel. She writes, “We tell our stories to be heard. Sometimes those stories free us. Sometimes they free others. When they are not told, they free no one.”

Jennifer Ochstein is a Midwestern writer and professor who has published essays with Hippocampus Magazine, The Lindenwood Review, The Cresset, Connotation Press, and Evening Street Review. Like many other creative nonfiction writers, she’s working on a memoir about her mother, and she’s discovered it takes just as long to process that relationship as it has to live with it.

Writing the Pain: Memoirists on Trauma and Memory

February 27, 2017 § 90 Comments

Brevity’s founding editor Dinty W. Moore interviews Melanie Brooks, author of the recently released Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma, featuring Brooks’ conversations with Andre Dubus III, Sue William Silverman, Kyoko Mori, Richard Hoffman, Suzanne Strempek Shea, Abigail Thomas, Mark Doty, Edwidge Danticat, Jessica Handler, Richard Blanco, and others about how they tackle the most painful subjects: zzzBO1,204,203,200_.jpg

MOORE: Many folks, thinking about a project like yours, would assemble an anthology, with various authors all writing essays on the theme. What inspired you to instead hop in your car and interview these writers?

BROOKS: It wasn’t so much inspiration as it was desperation. I didn’t start this project thinking I was writing a book. I started because I was paralyzed by the process of trying to tell my own hard story – so paralyzed that I wasn’t necessarily convinced I’d survive. I used the excuse of a semester project for my MFA to get the ball rolling because I knew I needed to see for myself that, despite having written through their really hard stories, all of these writers were still breathing. I needed them to look me in the eye and tell me that I’d keep breathing, too. In reading their memoirs, I’d felt a personal connection to each one of them, and I hoped for that same intimacy in our conversations. Intuitively, I recognized that in order to foster that, it would necessitate face-to-face contact when possible. I wanted these writers to know I was sincere and to trust that I’d take good care of the generous words they offered me. Then, once I started meeting up with them in really cool and diverse environments, I was hooked. I just wanted to keep doing it. When I began to transcribe the interviews, I realized how much the atmosphere of the conversations played into the conversations themselves. Writing them in narrative scene versus Q&A just felt right and it gave a natural shape to the project that I knew I wanted to build on when I understood it was becoming a book.

MOORE: Your book is as much about writing and memory as it is about writing and trauma.  Would you agree with that?

BROOKS: Absolutely. Whether our past is traumatic or not, writing about it still requires the writer to re-enter moments of lived experience and uncover the stories those moments hold. Andre Dubus III points out in our interview that “the opposite of the word remember is not forget, it’s dismember. Chop, chop, chop. Remember means to put back together again.” Putting our stories back together is the basic challenge of memoir writing. We have to pull out the memories and hold them close to the light so that we can see what’s really present in those moments. That close examination can expose stories we didn’t know we had and can also cause us to completely reevaluate the way we’ve always told ourselves the stories. There’s an underlying responsibility to be as true to those stories as we can, even though memory is, by nature, subjective. Carrying that burden of responsibility can feel lonely at times. I wanted to hear about those lonely treks into memory from each one of these authors because then I might feel less lonely on my own trek.

zz-melanieMOORE: What surprised you in the answers you received?

BROOKS: I honestly believed at the beginning of my memoir journey that writing my story would enable me to let it go. Leave it behind me somewhere. I was secretly hoping these writers would confirm this belief. They didn’t. Again and again, I heard that writing about the trauma doesn’t erase the trauma. Marianne Leone confronted my misconception head on: “I think what you’re hoping I’m going to tell you is that I had this great pain and that writing this book took the great pain away. I wish I could tell you that there’s a lessening of the pain. It’s just different.” Mark Doty’s words reiterated her perspective. “A rupture in your life of that kind remains a hole, a tear. Despite the fact that it doesn’t repair, doesn’t make the rupture in your life go away, it’s a very satisfying thing to give shape to your story. To concretize it. To have something you can give people and say, ‘I made this. This stands for me.’” And Richard Hoffman said, “You can never entirely redeem the experience. You can’t make it not hurt anymore. But you can make it beautiful enough so that there’s something to balance it in the other scale.” I listened to them, and I began to understand that my story is not something I can let go. It’s no longer something I even want to let go. I can, though, lighten the burden so it’s not quite so heavy to carry and maybe carry it differently. Putting its weight into words on the page is helping me to do that.

MOORE: What advice do you, or the writers you interview in Writing Hard Stories, have for beginning writers who feel the trauma in their lives is too hard to write, too impossible to explain, or too difficult to explore?

BROOKS: First, be kind to yourselves. It is hard to write about the trauma in our lives. It does often feel impossible to explain or too difficult to explore. So, afford yourselves some grace when those feelings surface and try not to minimize them. But also take heart, as I did, from the insights of others who have journeyed through their stories (and cried and felt paralyzed and often side-swiped by grief) and have made it to the other side. As Kyoko Mori says, “These things already happened.” We are survivors already because we are here now and the trauma is somewhere behind us. Find strength in that reality to take that first step into writing your stories. And, as Abigail Thomas told me when we spoke, “Don’t forget, it’s scarier not to do it than to do it.”


Melanie Brooks is a freelance writer, college professor, and mother living in Nashua, New Hampshire with her husband, two children and yellow Lab. She received an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. She teaches at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, Merrimack College in Andover, Massachusetts, and Nashua Community College in New Hampshire. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Bustle, The Manifest-Station, Hippocampus, the Huffington Post, Modern Loss, Solstice Literary Magazine, the Recollectors, the Stonecoast Review and Word Riot. Her almost-completed memoir explores the lasting impact of living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995. Her writing is the vehicle through which she’s learning to understand that impact.


A Review of J. Drew Lanham’s The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature

January 30, 2017 § 6 Comments

the_home_place_overlayBy Amy Wright

“There are still priceless places,” J. Drew Lanham says, “where nature hangs on by tooth, talon, and tendril.” And there remain rare breeds of humans who fall in love with a land darkened by the blood and sweat of ancestors purchased to work it.

Google a list of nature writers and a band of such similar skin tones scrolls across the screen you might be viewing a steadily receding ice cap. I recognized the bias reading Thoreau, Muir, Abbey, Wilson, Dillard, etc. but did not probe the roots of that particular privilege, which itself suggests privilege. My love of nature stems from growing up on a farm that has been in my family for at least six generations, so I hadn’t appreciated before reading The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature that legacy could also dissuade a sense of connection. “Conservation is simply a longer word for care,” Lanham says in an interview, but our ability to care corresponds with hope of seeing our affection requited. For many in the South, where Lanham grew up and still lives, “thousands of people can’t afford a square foot of the soil that their ancestors paid for with their lives.”

This love affair with nature is a complex one, addressed to an audience accustomed to misinformation and wary of idyllic depictions, but also in need of new models of care particularly from brown and black folks like his father. A teacher, as is Lanham’s mother, James Hoover Lanham farmed their seven acres in Edgefield, South Carolina, in his spare time to feed their family and supplement their income. Like many men of his generation, “Big Chief” expressed love more often through toil than touch. Clearing brush and stream, fixing fence and roof, his hard labor brightened the blood and filled the lungs of their home place. Young Drew watched his broad-shouldered exemplar “in bone-shivering awe as he worked through the discomfort of wet and cold without complaint.” A dimensional character as likely to recite the epic poem Beowulf as point out geological specimens of feldspar, mica, and quartz, Hoover clearly influences Lanham toward his career as an ornithologist, wildlife ecologist, and professor at Clemson University.

But his widowed grandmother, Mamatha, may be what makes Lanham the scientist he is—capable not only of publishing in peer-reviewed research journals but also of being moved by “the perfume of place: the pleasant mustiness of decaying leaves on a Blue Ridge forest floor, the sulfur stink of a Beaufort mudflat at low tide, the drunken sweetness of an orchard in October.”

Sent at age four to provide Mamatha with company in her ramshackle behind their family’s house, young Lanham grew up in her “tin-roofed, broomstraw-swept, rusting, rural, wood-fired world.” Born in 1896—one generation removed from slavery—Mamatha, “straddled nine decades and all of the history and social evolution that came along with them.” The perfect narrative device for bringing to life the cultural landscape that fledged a black birder, her character helps illustrate his unlikely calling. Plus, with her religious superstitions and knowledge of medicinal herbs, she is a fascinating personality, “a conjurer with a foot in two dimensions—this world and the spirit one.”

Lanham finds more canonical models at school, including Aldo Leopold. Fans of Sand County Almanac will appreciate its influence on Lanham’s descriptive prose:

Loblolly is a fast grower that stretches tall and mostly straight in forests that have been touched occasionally by fire and saw. In open stands, where the widely spaced trees can grow with broom sedge and Indian grass waving underneath, bobwhite quail, Bachman’s sparrows, and a bevy of other wildlife to call home. But where flames and forestry have been excluded, spindly trees fight with one another for sun and soil and will grow thick like the hair on a dog’s back.

But giving voice to place is particularly important to those who have long been dispossessed, Lanham says, since it yields a critical sense of self-purpose and belonging.

Through his observations of loblollies and church sermons, vireos and southerners, Lanham provides another model, harvesting affection for a place that is not always receptive to it. His writing style fosters integration by drawing together the narratives of slavery and conservation and the languages of science and literature. The Home Place thus supports a promising shift in an age-old dialogue increasingly aware of diversity’s role in propagating holistic communities and resilient ecosystems.

Amy Wright is the author of the poetry collections Everything in the Universe, and Cracker Sonnetsas well as five chapbooks, including the prose collection Wherever the Land Is. With William Wright she co-authored Creeks of the Upper South, a lyric reflection on the connection between waterways and cultural habitats.

A Review of Mary Cappello’s Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack

January 11, 2017 § Leave a comment

9780226356068.jpgBy Joey Franklin

All my life I have been a browser of dictionaries, a Sunday-afternoon flipper of phone books, a belly-on-the-carpet peruser of atlases and anthologies. I’ve been a geek for information since I picked up my first children’s illustrated encyclopedia. But I also love a good story, which is probably why I read essays. Who can resist the genre’s uncanny alchemy of information and personal narrative steeped in the mind of a thoughtful observer? Life is chaos, as information is chaos, but the essay reveals order, structure, and meaning in both. It’s the kind of literature that helps us find, rather than escape ourselves—the essay as atlas to the heart, dictionary of our own self-definition or, as Mary Cappello describes it in her new book, an almanac to mood.

Cappello’s new collection of essays, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack, is a 300-page thought experiment on mood, but calling it a collection doesn’t do justice to the scope of Cappello’s project. These essays don’t merely play off one another. They are distinct, stand-alone attempts at describing the often ineffable nature and origin of mood, part and parcel of one another—much the way that moods themselves are distinct and unique, but collectively make up the reality of who we are.

If you’ve read her book Awkward: A Detour, you’ll recognize in Life Breaks In what I call the Cappello Approach. It’s a disciplined, if idiosyncratic, dive into a subject, a Mariana Trench-level exploration that defies metaphor, or else demands a mixing. She’s not only turning her subject over to see it from every angle, but cutting it open, and cutting it up, tincturing bits in alcohol, grinding some into powder, spinning some in a centrifuge. Her subjects go under the knife and under the microscope; she looks under the hood and under the bed.

Subjects that get the Cappello Approach in this book, to name a few: clouds, the View-Master, family photos, mood rings, the physiology of hearing, parent/child relationships, taxidermy, dioramas, the classic children’s book Good Night Moon, and, most interestingly, a 19th-century orphanage-turned-natural-history-museum. Through all this, Cappello develops a subtle argument for mood as an essential piece of the self-discovery puzzle. She writes, “If mood defies representation, we should be protective of it, for it must have something to tell us that we cannot see and need to know.”

The Cappello approach is to the essay what I imagine the Swiss Army knife is to the toothpick, what Majong is to tic-tac-toe. In Life Breaks In, she confesses her love of “writing that resists its reader.” “I’m suspicious of the easy invitation that bows to protocol,” she writes. “Or the stuff that chatters recognizably, incapable of interestingly interrupting my day by making my heart skip a beat or requiring that I listen with my eyes.” Studious. Funky. Playful. Brooding. This is not a book you bring to the beach. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a joy to read. On the contrary, Cappello is the best kind of daunting. Life Breaks In is inspiring in the way of performances by preternaturally gifted musicians and athletes—a “wouldn’t it be great if I could jump that high, pluck strings that beautifully, sing with such grace, pull a double-pump-fake lay-in from under the rim with my tongue hanging out” type experience; except, it’s not Mike I want to be like, but Mary.

How about a classical author comparison? Cappello is at times as cerebral as Bacon, but where Bacon’s essays amount to a series of declarative statements that imply an immense amount of introspection, Cappello’s work is an immense amount of introspection that implies a series of assertions. If Bacon posits himself as a font of wisdom and right thinking, Cappello posits herself as a font of curiosity and deep thinking. And her mood is never Bacon, always Montaigne.

Near the beginning of Life Breaks In, Cappello claims, “in order to write or make art one must be in love, not with an individual per se, but with life itself.” And it may be Cappello’s passion that comes through most clearly in this book—a passion wide enough and deep enough to encompass life and all its many moods.


Joey Franklin’s first book, My Wife Wants You to Know I’m Happily Married, won the 2015 Association of Mormon Letters book prize for nonfiction, and was a finalist the 2016 Utah Book Award. His essays have appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Ninth Letter, The Normal School, Gettysburg Review, and many other publications.  He teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT, and is currently at work on a memoir about the saints and scoundrels hiding in his family tree.

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