A Review of Lisa Romeo’s Starting with Goodbye

May 25, 2018 § 6 Comments

51gwek4o8ul-_sx320_bo1204203200_By Magin LaSov Gregg

I read Lisa Romeo’s Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss while I taught Hamlet and could not stop comparing these texts, which share a few striking similarities, including father loss, a fatherly spirit who converses with the living, and head-on interruptions of cultural silences imposed on the bereaved. The first rule broken, of course, is the ban on speaking openly about the existential crisis that ensues when one confronts mortality.

Most famously, the grave-digging scene in Hamlet forefronts the image of a skull (poor Yorick!), a famous Renaissance momento mori, to remind audiences that finite borders mark life as precious. It is because we will die that life calls us to attention.

In Starting with Goodbye, Romeo includes a chapter titled “Momento Mori” in which she describes the brutal act of cleaning out possessions in her late father’s den. Each object encountered thrusts Romeo back into the moments when an object illuminated her father’s love and care. A painful realization dawns when she finds a canceled check her father wrote to cover one of her horses. She recalls “having a sense” at the time the check was written “that no matter what terrible thing might happen or threaten to happen, it was okay, because my father would be able to fix it, smooth things over, make it right.”

Therein lies the rub. After her father’s death, Romeo’s once cherished parental safety net disappears, even if this safety net had grown tenuous and complicated by geographic and emotional distance, as well as Romeo’s responsibilities for her own family. Much of Starting with Goodbye compels me, but this rumination undid me. And I suspect other children who’ve lost parents will relate.

The aftermath, the life one must live without a parent to offer guidance or protection, stings more than the initial shock of death precisely because of its relentlessness. As Eula Biss has written, “The suffering of Hell is terrifying not because of any specific torture, but because it is eternal.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I should share that I have a few things in common with Romeo, including sharing an alma mater (Syracuse University’s S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications), parent loss (although I was twenty-one when my mother died) and producing writing that is also invested in candid, public conversations about grief.

What I find most valuable about Starting with Goodbye is how this book shatters grief myths to expose bereavement experiences that often go unacknowledged within American life. For example, there’s the quiet relief a child might feel, and that Romeo confronts, when a parent dies after a long or deteriorating illness.

There’s the truth that our absent loved ones are ever-present. They are dead and never truly gone. A corpse might become a ghost, as in Hamlet, a memory, or a lingering and difficult-to-name presence who shows up to chat, as is Romeo’s experience.

Her narrator never defines these unexpected fatherly apparitions, nor does she label them as paranormal but simply notes, “We talk, my dead father and I.” And her chapter “What Happens in Vegas” contends with these unexpected father-daughter conversations, funeral ephemera, and the deaths of celebrities who remind Romeo of her father.

In turn, Romeo’s ruminations amplify the emotional complexities of early mourning, when there is no rulebook or how-to manual for how to get this right, despite American culture’s insistence on five tidy consecutive stages of grief.

At the chapter’s conclusion, Romeo remarks on the deaths of celebrity icons who remind her of her father, and whose losses trigger new experiences of grief. Her point? Grief is not a straight line with a fixed beginning or end. It’s more like a wave or a ripple, more like a surprise.

“As each one of these old men dies or fades from public life, I designate others to take their place, men slightly older than my father was at his death, older than he ever got to be,” she writes.

For me, these musings were most welcome and powerful. My mother resembled Mary Tyler Moore, and they both lived with type 1 diabetes. When the actress died last year, I felt, for a moment, like I’d lost my mother again. Romeo’s candor normalized my own reaction, and gave me a model for a grief experience where I’ve rarely found appropriate models.

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking was published following my mother’s death—and Romeo references this book, which has become a seminal grief-text of our time, comparable to C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed in the twentieth century. But I find Starting with Goodbye more helpful because of Romeo’s wry wit, which offers a much needed cultural critique.

In her chapter “Leaving Las Vegas,” she examines then discards hollow platitudes that, at the level of language, illuminate a cultural tendency to erase or project positivity onto experiences of grief and loss. Platitudes appear in italics, followed with Romeo’s plain text critiques.

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” she writes. “There’s a lot you can do, but I can’t let you know. I can’t think straight, figure out whom or what to ask and risk a no.”

You are in my thoughts and prayers,” she adds. “Great. Now, when I get home, talk to me, let me talk. Don’t be shocked.”

As I read these lines, I thought once more of ghosts—of grief as a kind of haunting where language fails to adequately capture or categorize experience. In Romeo’s story, ghosts are more symbolic, more speculative than literal. And yet, as in Hamlet, the possibility of a ghost speaks to a child’s longing. Even in adulthood, we need our parents.

Grief, from the old French grever, means “to burden.” And for children who lose their parents, grief can feel like a burden, like an intractable weight that changes in shape or size, and shifts unexpectedly. It was Carl Jung who popularized this notion when he wrote, “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.”

However, I worry that “burden” has negative connotations that contribute to our cultural tendency to avoid and deny death. I prefer thinking about grief as a relationship like any relationship, a commitment borne out of love. For seventeen years, I have mourned my mother in direct proportion to my love for her. Grief keeps us connected. Death is not the end of a relationship, but a turning point, as evidenced by Romeo’s title: Starting with Goodbye.

Perhaps this is why I’ve already planned to give copies of her memoir to friends, family, and students beginning their own grief journeys.

In American culture, where talk of death is still taboo, we need more stories about the aftermath of loss, about what it means to live with candor in the face of grief. We need stories that speak with frankness about parental death. We need writers like Romeo to start a new conversation, to keep it going.
___

Magin LaSov Gregg lives, writes, and teaches in Frederick, Md. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Post, Manifest Station, Literary Mama, Rumpus, Bellingham Review, Under the Gum Tree, and elsewhere. She blogs about life after loss on her personal website, and she swears she will finish her memoir in 2018.

A Review of Susan Harlan’s Luggage

May 23, 2018 § 5 Comments

41EyT+8g5jL._SX363_BO1,204,203,200_By Adrienne Pilon

After a long day of air travel from North Carolina to Sacramento, I arrived at the baggage carousel to collect my big, black suitcase. I’d packed for the summer and my life for the next two months was all there: eye wear, books, clothes, toiletries. As I watched the carousel go round and round without my suitcase, I recalled the adage about there being only two types of luggage: carry-on and lost. Passenger after passenger from my flight reclaimed baggage and still I waited. The area emptied. Only two bags remained and neither was mine. Indignant, I marched to the lost luggage office to complain. Before filling out the forms, though, the claim attendant insisted on returning to the luggage carousel to have another look. Only one suitcase remained—a big, black, and nondescript behemoth. “That’s not mine,” I insisted, but the attendant lifted it off the carousel and plucked the tag out from under the handle to show me…my own name. “Happens all the time,” the man said, which I thought gracious. I had forgotten all about my idiocy, but thanks to Susan Harlan’s new book, Luggage, that moment has been vividly brought back to mind.

From Herodotus to pilgrims of the Middle Ages to the 21st century traveler to the real and the fictional, Harlan explores the accouterment of journeys in this latest installment of the Bloomsbury “Object Lessons” series—books that take on “the hidden lives of ordinary things.”  Harlan’s academic work on ordnance in Shakespeare and her professed love of objects inform this little book. An intimate look at suitcases, trunks, totes, and other baggage, Luggage illuminates the intricacies of how we carry our lives with us when we travel.

Full of factoids and observations, Harlan lurches from the mundane to the fascinating. A visit to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Alabama is both. The Center, one of Alabama’s “top tourist attractions,” is where the country’s unclaimed luggage is sorted and sold or displayed. While it was fascinating to learn about this place, I didn’t need to know that Harlan had to stop to look up directions. However, I appreciated the notion that without our luggage, “we’re set loose in the world unprepared…[t]his is the anxiety at the heart of lost luggage.” Harlan also, to varying degrees of effectiveness, unpacks the etymology of the word “luggage” and outlines the growth of tourism. But Harlan is at her best when she explores the luggage of film and literature. There is Mary Poppins and her “infinite” carpet bag. The suitcase of Orhan Pamuk’s father is luggage which “tells a story about exile.” There are the soldiers in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” and those pieces of home they brought with them to Vietnam. And I was delighted to find that Grace Kelly’s perfect little overnight case in Rear Window got a mention.

Harlan’s exploration of the minutiae of luggage makes for introspection. While reading, I found myself thinking of baggage and travel I’d not contemplated in some time, and in some cases, not at all. I was embarrassed all over again when Harlan discusses nondescript black suitcases, and was happy to have confirmed my own impression of the Sacramento airport’s Auschwitz-like display of suitcases. I recalled a trip to the lost luggage counter in Frankfurt when most of my baggage went missing at customs and my outsized joy when they were delivered to me in Prague just a few days later. There were the green Atlantic suitcases I received for my high school graduation that I took to Mexico, and the big backpack I carried to Guatemala. After weeks of being on the road and sleeping in bunkhouses with other people, that backpack became a repository of space that was just my own. During travel, as Harlan says, “[a] suitcase marks the boundary between inside and outside; public and private.”

Harlan mines the life of things we pay little attention to, or simply don’t recall, and calls up nostalgia through the memory of objects. The Samsonite line of marbled tan suitcases Harlan describes were a fixture of my childhood—in particular, the overnight case, with its mirror and faux-silk lining and pockets. When I wasn’t using it for sleepovers, I used that case as a vanity and repository for secret, special items, like folded notes and seashells. In Luggage, Harlan brings it all back with a rush of delight—just like a lost suitcase, returned at last.
___

Adrienne Pilon is a traveler, teacher and writer. She lives in North Carolina with her family.

A Brief Interview with a Hideous Man

May 22, 2018 § 9 Comments

zz unnamedAuthor Steve Almond’s four-year-old daughter Rosalie interviews him about his depressing new book, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country :

Rosalie Almond: What’s wrong with you?

Steve Almond: I have a new book out.

RA: The one about stupid stories?

SA: It’s about bad stories.

RA: Like something bad happens?

SA: Not exactly. There are bad stories in which something bad happens. But when I say “bad stories” I mean stories that lead to bad things happening. Stories that are untrue or that are cruel, stories that make people want to break things, rather than build things.

RA: I don’t get it.

SA: Okay. Here’s an example. If I said to you, “You can’t trust people with green eyes, because they will steal your toys. You have a right to play with your toys, don’t you? But if you see a kid with green eyes, you shouldn’t be nice to them, because they just want to steal your toys.”

RA: Why do they want to steal my toys? What did I do to them?

SA: I understand. But okay, wait a second.

RA: I hate them!

SA: Wait a sec—

RA: People with green eyes should die!

SA: Okay. Time out. That was just an example. People with green eyes don’t want to steal your toys.

RA: But you just said they did!

SA: Right. But that wasn’t true. It was just a bad story I told you.

RA: Why did you say that if it wasn’t true?

SA: Because when you tell a bad story a lot of the time people will listen to you, and that gives you a lot of power. Someone who wants to become a famous radio host, or even the president, can tell bad stories as a way of getting attention. They can say, “People with green eyes want to steal your toys!” And, “People who read books think you’re stupid!” And, “You can’t trust people with dark skin!” It doesn’t matter if those stories are mean and untrue.

RA: It doesn’t?

SA: Not if it helps you get power. If you can find people who feel frustrated and angry and who are in pain, bad stories make them feel good.

RA: Why?

9781597092265SA: Because now they have a good reason to feel angry. If they feel like they don’t have enough toys, or they worry that they might not get dessert, or if they see other kids who have more than them, those things make them angry. Bad stories give them a reason to feel angry. And someone to blame.

RA: But why do other kids have more? That’s not fair.

SA: You’re absolutely right. It’s not fair. In a fair world, we would divide things up more equally, right? There wouldn’t be people with 100,000 chocolate cakes and other people who don’t have enough money to buy a loaf of bread. But if you’re a person with 100,000 chocolate cakes, you can distract people from how greedy you are by telling bad stories, by saying, “The reason you don’t have enough money to buy a loaf of bread is because some dark-skinned person from another country who doesn’t even speak English stole your job!”

RA: But I don’t have a job.

SA: Right.

RA: Do I have to get a job?

SA: Someday, sure. But for now, I think it’s good for you to just go to pre-school.

RA: Because I can get a job later?

SA: Right, that can happen later.

RA: Will things be fair when I grow up?

SA: I don’t know. I hope so. But the only way they are going to get fair is for people to stop telling bad stories. They have to start telling good stories, which are stories that make people feel nicer and more hopeful and more generous. Stories which make you feel like you can understand how someone who looks different from you, or prays to a different God, actually wants the same things as you. Like they want a safe place to live and good schools for their kids to go do and enough to eat and a good doctor to go to if they get sick. That’s what all of us want, right?

RA: Not the doctor. They do shots!

SA: That’s true. But sometimes shots are the only way to help someone who is sick, right? Remember when you and mama got the flu?

RA: We couldn’t fly on the plane to California. We had to come later.

SA: That’s right. You were so sick. But if you get a shot, you don’t get the flu. Good stories can be like that, too. They can be like a shot that keeps us from getting sick, or helps us get better. So a good story is a true story that helps keep us safe, even if it’s a little scary. Like if we want to keep the planet from getting too hot, we have to use less gas. Or if we want to have a government that helps people we have to vote for people who want to solve problems. Or if we want people to have enough to eat and good schools and good jobs, we might have to take a little bit away from the people who have 100,000 chocolate cakes.

RA: Can I have dessert tonight? I never get dessert.

SA: You already had dessert, my love. You had a lollipop.

RA: I did? Really? Is your book over yet?

SA: Over?

RA: Yeah, I want to read a different book now. One of my books.

SA: Okay. I don’t blame you. I like your books better than mine, anyway.

RA: So why did you write your dumb book, anyway?

SA: I guess because for writers the stories we write are the ones that get stuck in our heads. Stories that won’t go away unless we write them down. That’s just how it works.

RA: That sounds boring.

SA: It is boring.

RA: I told you so.

__

Steve Almond is the author of ten books, most recently Bad Stories. His daughter Rosalie has no plans to read the book.

A Review of Julija Šukys’ Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning

May 15, 2018 § 3 Comments

51excx8b7ml-_sx322_bo1204203200_by Vivian Wagner

Julija Šukys’ Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning (University of Nebraska Press, 2017) is a book both about storytelling and about the inability, sometimes, to tell stories. Šukys attempts, in this book, to reconstruct the lives of her Lithuanian grandfather and grandmother, but in so doing, she discovers family and political secrets that unsettle the project and her relationship to her past, to the past of her family, and to the act of narrating history itself.

I understand this process well, having spent much time in recent years trying to reconstruct my father’s family’s history during and after the Holocaust in Hungary. I understand how slippery the past is, how just when you think you’ve figured something out, the story changes. This is true both for family narratives and official, historical ones. So it was with a sense of empathy and deep understanding that I read this book.

Siberian Exile is divided into three sections: one focusing on Anthony, her grandfather; one about Ona, her grandmother; and one called simply “Us,” about herself and the rest of the family. These different strands capture one of the narrative’s central realities: there are different perspectives on what happened during and after World War II. The book attempts to weave together these multiple stories while acknowledging that they are at times contradictory.

Šukys discovers, primarily through researching old KGB records, a disturbing secret: her grandfather collaborated with German soldiers as they rounded up and killed Jewish Lithuanians during the war. The records she initially finds suggest that he was responsible for actually killing Lithuanian Jews, but she’s not able to prove the truth of those records. What does seem certain, at the very least, is that he did not resist as Jews were being killed.

This discovery haunts Šukys throughout the book, as she tries to come to terms with her grandfather’s actions and inactions. She feels at times guilty and responsible for what he did, and she tries to tell this story in part, it seems, to address the difficult discovery openly and honestly. As she says, “My task is both writerly and simply human: to tell the truth as best I can.”

In the second section, Šukys tells the story of her grandmother Ona’s decades-long exile in Siberia. Arrested by Soviet authorities and separated from her husband and children, Ona does her best to make a life for herself and, eventually, her sister, in grueling and difficult conditions in the harsh Siberian landscape. Her story is a fascinating blend of survival and self-sacrifice, and it shows a woman both coming to terms with her fate and finding strength and courage in the process:

I imagine Ona came into her own in Siberia. Distance and hardship either forced or allowed her to locate a power within herself. The wife of an authoritarian and militaristic man, she must have deferred to her husband for years before her arrest. But in a strange and surprising way, Siberia made her mighty.

In exile, it seems, her grandmother might have escaped a worse fate. It’s a strange irony in a book full of twists, turns, and convergences.

Šukys travels to Siberia, retracing her grandmother’s train journey from her village in Lithuania to the Siberian village where she’d live for the next several decades. Šukys interviews people who knew her grandmother, and she visits the site where her grandmother’s cabin once stood, connecting her physically and emotionally with her grandmother’s past.

The third section brings the book back to the present, to the aftermath of the war. It follows her grandmother and grandfather as they eventually find their way to Canada, reuniting with each other and with their now-grown children. It also brings us to the writer’s final attempts to make meaning out of all she’s learned about her grandparents’ past. What she discovers, however, is there’s no neat way to wrap everything up. There are many unanswered questions, unknown facts, and things that still, despite all of her research, must be imagined.

The book ends with her listening to a recorded interview with her grandmother, who tells a story of a friend of hers in exile eating charcoal from the fire and washing its bitterness down with water: “My grandmother’s voice washed over me, and suddenly I too tasted the ash in my mouth.” It’s a fitting metaphor for her work throughout this book. In uncovering and trying to make sense of the past, Šukys is left only with the past’s imprint on the present – the taste of history’s ashes in her mouth.
___

Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she teaches English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music; a poetry collection, The Village; and a micro-chapbook, Making.

Review of Sophfronia Scott’s Love’s Long Line

April 16, 2018 § 3 Comments

z long lineby Renée E. D’Aoust

Sophfronia Scott’s collection of essays Love’s Long Line reminds us that a life lived with hope is a life full of possibility. While walking in New York City’s Central Park or visiting her emotionally absent mother in Ohio, Scott shows us what it means to find faith.

In “Opening to Love,” Scott writes, “I am trying to learn how my heart works. This knowledge, I hope, could be the key to a kind of protection.” Rather than turn away from the childhood trauma her now-deceased father has caused, Scott turns toward the meaning of forgiveness in her adult life.

Scott’s essay, “A Fur for Annie Pearl,” speaks to how valuable it can be to know our parents’ friends. Because sweet, honest Annie Pearl is a dear friend of Scott’s father, Pearl bears witness to all aspects of Sophfronia’s dad. Through her adult friendship with Pearl, Scott discovers signs of her father’s love.

This essay reminds me how much it has meant to have had three of my father’s closest friends track my life: Bower, Morgan, and Kiwala. They always called me Buzzy, told stories about how much they loved my mum, Susan, talked of how she read so much and so widely, and shared their scary shark stories from their countless scuba dives with my dad. These men bore witness to my baby days and took loving care of our family after the suicide of my older brother Ian at age thirty-nine.

Robert Bower gave me eloquent advice throughout my life, particularly when I was trying for the umpteenth time to break up with a certain ex. He’d tell me that I deserved a man who could show up emotionally. Morgan Wells told me stories about teaching diving physiology to medical doctors and using one of my dad’s papers that referenced super saturation. Robert Kiwala served as my proud bridesmaid when my husband and I eloped at the Bonner County Idaho courthouse nine years ago.

Each of my father’s dear friends was not a constant in my life, but they entered and exited easily. I mourn the loss of witness with each one’s final exit.

So I love the feeling of validation that Annie Pearl gives Sophfronia Scott about Scott’s own father: “There was something exhilarating about the stories Annie Pearl told me. I felt alive, baptized, as though she poured water over my head and confirmed something I once thought I believed but in reality only hoped to believe—my father loved me. And I could trust the stories she told because she didn’t paint a beatific portrait of him.”

In Love’s Long Line, Scott knows how to find grace even in its absence: “What is grace? It is love where it does not have to be, where there is no reason for it.” In part because Scott endured a violent father and maintained her love for him, her writing shows a clear-sighted means of how an individual might encompass grace in the aftermath of trauma.

On December 14, 2012, her son Tain’s best friend, Ben, was killed. Tain was in class at Sandy Hook Elementary the day Adam Lanza shot and killed Ben along with nineteen other young school children and six adults. Scott shares her feelings about that day in the essay “To Winter Warming”:

The event seems to confirm my suspicion of God’s absence and yet in every moment as the cold day unfolded, I knew the only way I would survive the ongoing aftermath is if I kept proving myself wrong. And this would be a tremendous necessity because in the days that followed I experienced a terrible duality in which I felt the situation demanded I marshal every strength of who I was while at the same time feeling dismantled on every level.

But Love’s Long Line is much more than a book that wrestles with survival. It traces a spiritual journey. Forgiveness is not a requisite but it can be a means for an individual to reclaim agency. This theme, and its countervailing tensions, weaves throughout. Scott teaches us that a soul needs to tell it slant, yet still to be loved; she writes:

I am, as Emily Dickinson might put it, a soul seeking my society. This is perhaps the greatest risk I take because the potential for pain is always present. To have a heart so open is to, as Annie Dillard puts it, ‘reel out love’s long line alone, stripped like a live wire loosing its sparks to a cloud, like a live wire loosed in space to longing and grief everlasting.’

__
Renée E. D’Aoust’s Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press) was a Foreword Review’s “Book of the Year” finalist. Recent anthology publications include Flash Nonfiction Funny, Not My President, and Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction. D’Aoust teaches online at Casper College and North Idaho College. Follow her @idahobuzzy.

A Review of Allison Coffelt’s Maps Are Lines We Draw

April 13, 2018 § Leave a comment

z mapsBy Katharine Coldiron

It’s a rare person who doesn’t like to travel. I know, because I am one, and when new acquaintances discover this about me, they often look as if I’ve pushed aside my bangs to reveal a third ear. But even though I don’t enjoy travel, I have immense curiosity about the world outside my living room. It’s a blessing when a book about a place I am never likely to go crosses my path, and a great joy when that book is also well-written and thoughtful. Such is the case with Maps Are Lines We Draw, a slim and piquant little volume about Haiti laid out along a road trip the author, Allison Coffelt, takes through the country with a doctor who is delivering her to OSAPO, the medical clinic he founded. There, she will provide assistance; not, I gather, because she has any special medical training, but because she is simply another pair of hands. Maps is an immediate book, told with great craft and without pretense. The author’s voice is so strong, full of such intellect and sensitivity, that it’s difficult not to like and respect Coffelt right away.

Let me dispense with the elephant in the manuscript: yes, this is a white American’s book about a visit to Haiti. Yes, there are elements of this premise that feel off, as if an anthropologist is observing a struggle of which she is not really a part. Obviously, she can leave that struggle at any time to return to her comfortable Midwestern life. But Coffelt underlines her awareness of her privilege, and the validity of her project, repeatedly and effectively. On page fifteen, barely having begun her story, she warns the reader:

Maybe a guide keeps you physically safe—but what of other wickedness?

The danger of the mission-trip story. The college-admittance or finding-God experience. You know the one: a student goes somewhere “down there,” and as soon as she gets off the plane (“it was really hot”) they take a bus to the village, and they meet locals and maybe teach some children English, and at the end of the week, that glorious week, when all this time she thought she would be teaching them, she really finds they taught her. A tale so common I once heard a radio interview about just how common it is.

I’m not sure knowing this trap gets me out of it.

I’m not sure I’m so different.

The book is not just the story of Coffelt in Haiti. She also spends many pages on aspects of the relationship between Haiti and richer countries that are not commonly known. For example, clothing recycling, which bundles up clothing donations from North America and ships them to countries like Haiti more or less for disposal, is quite harmful to these countries, and Coffelt outlines the reasons why. “Haiti is a graveyard for clothes,” she notes. Methods of long-distance aid that wealthy countries like the U.S. presume to be helpful often are not, for reasons it’s impossible to tease out without a perspective like Coffelt’s: ground-level interaction with citizens of a nation coupled with a high-altitude capacity to understand the entrenched systems at work. She methodically explains how, in the early nineteenth century, France manipulated Haiti into promising an astronomical sum to its enslavers to compensate for the end of free labor on the island. The unfairness of this situation gathered in my mind so gradually that I was furious and disgusted at the end of the chapter without consciously realizing I’d passed beyond curiosity.

Coffelt’s ability as a writer is not restricted to reportage. Some chapters are structured almost as braided or lyric narratives. She mixes a mouthwatering description of eating douce macoss, a unique dessert, with paragraphs describing the medical education of the doctor who is driving her across the island. There’s collage here, as well; for instance, impressions of Haiti sourced from a 2011 Lonely Planet guide, a 1956 Pan Am brochure, and the people Coffelt meets at the clinic, are mixed together and presented simply:

The adage, “there’s room for interpretation.”

–You wash your hands, your dishes, with Clorox.

The adage, “a good translator disappears.”

–I buy the rice from the farm. We boil it. After that, we dry it in the sun and go to a grinder to grind and clean it. Then we sell it in a public market.

–Why are you a nurse?

–I love the community, and I want to help people and also help my family.

Further, Coffelt returns repeatedly to an exploration of “t/here”: there and here, the American Midwest and Haiti, swapping places. Since there and here are relative to a person’s present location, socioeconomic situation, race, education, health, and other factors, “t/here” does not form a simple binary but a shifting, unreliable set of landscapes. She even writes about Hegel. It’s cool and sad and wonderful and dismaying all at once.

Since I’m not a traveler, I’m not qualified to say whether Coffelt has accurately captured Haiti. What she’s certainly done is produced a profoundly thoughtful volume about place, medicine, light, opportunity, water, and storytelling, among other ideas. Were I her editor, I might have wanted her to write more, to open up her bleak, tightly controlled sentences and build something that feels more comfortably complete—stories with resolutions instead of shrugs and sorrow. But perhaps that is Coffelt’s point: from here to there, and from there to here, prejudice, purpose, and even lives are all going to be lost. The spaces between certainties are where a book like this lives, and Coffelt has manipulated those liminal spaces with great skill.
___

Katharine Coldiron‘s work has appeared in Ms., the Rumpus, the Offing, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.

A Review of Will Dowd’s Areas of Fog

April 12, 2018 § 3 Comments

By Debbie Hagan

z dowdHere in New England, we had four nor’easters in March: Riley, Quinn, Skylar, and most recently Toby. My friend’s business trip to Boston coincided with Quinn. While I’d classify her as a   conscientious, cautious, and well-planned traveler, she decided this time not to pack snow boots. They didn’t match her outfits. They were too big for her carry-on.

“You do have sidewalks…don’t you?” she asked.

Three days into her stay, she described to me how she forded a slushy black stream while crossing Commonwealth Avenue. Her feet were wet and cold, her shoes mucky. She was sorry.

Trust the New Englander. We abandon looking cute or even professional once snow starts to fall. The goal is simply to be clean, warm, and dry—and that’s not so easy. It means piling on everything that’s waterproof: a parka, boots, layers of scarves, and heavy gloves. If you show up at your cocktail party or business meeting dressed like an Arctic explorer, no one will think badly about you. No one will bat an eye or say anything…except maybe praise you for your sensibility.

Author Will Dowd, a New Englander, knows all about nor’easters, mud season, and the slow, coy emergence of spring. In a collection of connected essays, Dowd muses about the region’s eclectic weather in Areas of Fog.

“All the weathermen of New England go mad eventually,” he writes in the opening. “After a few decades spent attempting to predict the unpredictable, they succumb to a kind of meteorological nihilism and wander out of the studio mid-broadcast, muttering to themselves, and can be seen a week later selling wilted roses on the side of the highway.”

Hmmm. I’ve seen these guys in the South End waving their limp roses.

In Dowd’s slim book, he traces a calendar year of New England weather. “It’s been a winter of naming,” he writes. “Every week the weather-industrial complex introduces and calculates a new buzzword for a weather phenomenon that has already existed (‘Bombogenesis’ is having its moment), while The Weather Channel has gone rogue and begun naming blizzards. They’re not even proceeding through the alphabet. It’s chaos.” (See above.)

Why? In part, it’s because Americans don’t have an extensive vocabulary when it comes to weather. Northern Native Americans may have fifty names for snow, but “we still have no name for the first labored swipe of windshield wipers over morning frost,” he writes. “We still have no name for the mist that rises off the shoulders of melting snowmen like their departing souls.” We have no name for those first optimistic rays of sun that sneak through the clouds after eleven days of fog and driving snow.

Dowd draws from anecdotes, letters, poetry, and quotes from various artists and writers who’ve lived in or, at least, visited New England. From Mark Twain, he shares this insight: “In the spring, I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four and twenty hours.” Twain observed this from his home in Connecticut, where he lived the last seventeen years of his life.

Dowd writes about flooding, particularly in MIT’s $300 million Strata Center, where the author typically eats his lunch. “A yellow and white aluminum scrapheap, it was designed by Frank Gehry to look like ‘a party of drunk robots got together to celebrate,’” he writes. Obviously, he’s not a fan of Gehry’s, and to him, the building looks more like a “cubist omelet.”

Gehry famously denied his building leaked. He stood in front of a crowd and shouted, “My name is Frank Gehry and my buildings don’t leak.” Nevertheless, Dowd “avoided brimming buckets and ducked under caution tape” on his way to the cafe.

It’s stories like that make this book a fun read—even for New Englanders, who you’d expect to be bored to tears in hearing about weather. Not. In spite of their groveling and complaining, they are truly weather obsessed, checking in with weather reporters all day long to hear the latest.

“Yet while they may be doomed to fail, we don’t mock our weathermen,” Dowd writes. “Even though we see them for what they are—oracles draped in sheep entrails—we don’t change the channel. We listen politely to their forecast. And then we talk about it.”
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Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and author of Against the Tide (Hamilton Books, 2004). Her essays have 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.

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