A Review of Brenda Miller’s A Braided Heart

October 21, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Kelly K. Ferguson

Last week I found myself wandering Ellis Hall in Ohio University. Back when I was a creative writing grad student, I lurked all the time, acting as if I had official business, but really on the lookout for company, which I usually found. But that was seven years ago, and we’re in the second year of a pandemic. Ellis Hall has since been renovated to resemble a Hampton Inn. The dusty hardback copies of Ivanhoe? Recycled. The bat under the trash can? Disposed. No sensible person would miss how the stairwells used to smell of baby diapers. The clank of an opening door echoed and I scurried out.

The above is what Brenda Miller would call a container scene. My scene is meant to demonstrate particular loneliness, the loneliness a writer feels for other writers. The German word for that feeling is Schrifstellersehnsucht.

Schrifsteller = writer

Sehnsucht = longing

In A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing and Form, Brenda Miller weaves short essays of her writing life with craft lessons. The book is divided into three sections (of course!). The first centers around memoir of Miller’s writing life, the second on craft, and the third reflects on writing community.

Any follower of Brevity recognizes Brenda Miller as a good friend to creative nonfiction. Perhaps you’ve read her classic essay “Swerve,” or Miller writing about writing “Swerve.” Miller may not have invented the lyric essay, but she has made containers such as the hermit crab, collage, and braided essay accessible to instructors and writers.

If Miller’s Tell it Slant (co-authored with Suzanne Paola) is a chalkboard crammed with notes, A Braided Heart is a pot of perfectly steeped tea with two cups. The book is a testament to the tensile strength of essay. No matter how the form is bent, so long as the writer remains in conversation, the connection maintains, this friendship through words.

While I was a grad student at Ohio University, Brenda Miller was a visiting writer and I picked her up from the Columbus airport. I was nervous and excited and took a detour to Canal Winchester, the exit where strip malls and car dealerships go to thrive. Losing our visiting writer to the machinations of neoliberal industry would be bad. I rambled without pause to cover my anxiety until I figured out how to merge back onto the proper road.

Miller remained good company throughout.

Miller’s talent is to make the structure of her lyrical essays feel natural, as if they couldn’t read any other way. “Writing Inside the Web” connects a story about a Free Box at a lodge, to a writing retreat, to a list of internal brain machinations, to Simon and Garfunkel.

“…the mind, given the right conditions, will become a soft receiving ground, so full of inviting crannies that thoughts, images, ideas can drift there and settle like pollen.” (“On Thermostats”)

Last Friday, I sat down to finish this review, and wound up writing a hermit crab essay instead, which I credit to the juju provided from A Braided Heart.

When I taught the hermit crab essay as a graduate student, I would show this video of a pet hermit crab changing shells. Without their container, the hermit crab is vulnerable, disproportionate, a hunchback out of the belfry. At the end of the video, when the crab slips into their new home, a woman gasps, “Ooooh! There she goes!” This always made the students laugh.

That laughter was the sound of freedom from the five-paragraph essay.

Miller writes how concrete forms allow for “inadvertent revelations,” where the writer surrenders control. “Revelation, or discovery, emerges organically from the writing; the essay now seems to reveal information about the writer, rather than the writer revealing these tidbits directly to the reader.”

Confession: Schrifstellersehnsucht doesn’t exist. My partner is Austrian and finds this idea of a “German word” for everything perplexing. He explains that German has more compound words, so it’s easier to string words together, but that doesn’t mean the words are real.

“But what would the German word be, if you made one up?” I ask.

He knows I’ve been lonely for other writers.

The day after I’d visited Ellis Hall, I ran into my former creative nonfiction professor, Eric LeMay, in a market parking lot. Even as my chatter floated in the air, I wondered why I would go on about lurking for the smell of baby diapers, out of all the things I could say. Our exchange was over in a minute.

“Maybe see you somewhere, someday,” I said. I meant a reading or a gathering.

“Maybe,” he said through his mask.

The inside of my car was silent. I thought, this is a somewhere, someday.

“What I’m trying to say is the lyric essay happens in the gaps. In the pause before the next breath demands to be taken,” Brenda Miller.

Two wide flat mossy rocks sit like invitations in front of my house. A father and his daughter walk by most days. The girl always runs up to the rocks, and leaps from one to the other. 

“Whee!” she says, but only when she’s in the air.


Kelly K. Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her work has appeared in New England Review, Storysouth, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Cincinnati Review, and other publications. In the past ten years, she has moved from southern Louisiana to southern Ohio back to southern Louisiana on to southern Utah back to southern Ohio, where she has planted asparagus in the hopes of yielding a tender spear in three to five years. 

Review of Abby Hagler’s There Was Nothing Left But Gold

October 8, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Hannah White

I was a quiet girl. I grew up in an all-girl home. In the spaces between my mother’s failed boyfriends and marriages, it was just my mother, my sister, and me, together in a home too large for just us. My mother loved silence, especially in the morning, when our voices carried easily through the emptiness of the house. Excitement was greeted with hushes, with demands to walk lightly. I made myself like a little ghost and she loved me for it.

But I must admit: I love quiet too. In it I find space, room for thinking, for reading and writing, room for loving myself like I always wanted someone else to.

Similarly, Abby Hagler finds space of her own as she revisits the rolling Nebraska grasslands of her home in There Was Nothing Left But Gold. After severing communication with her mother, Hagler heads toward her childhood home and stops in the prairie lands that inspired Willa Cather’s fiction. Weaving together personal and travel narrative, literary criticism, and ghost theory, in her lyric essays Hagler demonstrates an awareness of self, of how identity is inherited—or willed by parents onto their children—and of how memory is strongly tied to place.

Hagler identifies with Cather, who she says, “sought to escape the myth her mother had created for her.” Hagler herself a rebellious child who resisted the life her mother strained to raise her into—one of marriage, of being settled in one place—asks the question, “What becomes of the woman who lives the story her mother tells?”

Entering the prairie that is the setting of O Pioneers!, after being away from the grasses of her homeland for years, Hagler is left speechless. The life of the prairie moves around her, grass constantly growing and dying and growing again. She writes, “Grass resists assimilation. It grows against language because we cannot own it.” Hagler deftly puts into words what it feels like to simultaneously belong to a place—whether a landscape or a mother—without being owned by it.

Coming back to the prairie of her childhood, now an adult, Hagler feels she is now haunting the landscape that raised her. She revisits once familiar places—gas stations and fields—attesting to them that she still exists. But she asks herself, “Can I be nostalgic for a home where I no longer belong?” Though pulled to the memories of her childhood home, Hagler is struck by the continuity of the once familiar places around her despite her absence. Hagler provokes her readers with questions of the importance of place, identity, and inheritance.

Hagler’s mother sends her a lock of her baby hair, telling her she is in charge of her own relics. Because she lacks a house, family members resist giving Hagler family heirlooms, instead sending photocopies of pictures and documents of family history, “writing and being educated do not count as stability. One must display a physical immovability in order to keep time.” But Hagler makes readers question: Can one over truly leave home behind?

Though pulled to the lands of her home, where seeds in the prairie grass wedge themselves between fibers of clothing, holding on even through the wash, where blades of grass sprout out, each blade origin unknown and maybe even far from where it springs, Hagler imagines a willing revisiting of home, a sort of reverence for the past that does not compromise the personal choice of tomorrow.

Quiet is my mother, but it is me too.

Hannah White is a writer and graduate student in English at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. She copyedits for the Journal of International Women’s Studies and writes for Literarytraveler.com. In her free time, she enjoys baking and walking through the woods of her hometown’s state park with her two Boston terriers.

A Review of Judy Bolton-Fasman’s Asylum

October 1, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Ellen Blum Barish

A curious girl who grows up around people who keep secrets is like a balloon filling with water. It’s only a matter of time until it bursts.

But secrets don’t stand a chance against a girl who can find the words. And Judy Bolton-Fasman is one of those girls.

With sophisticated sleuthing and tender prose, she investigates her secret-keeping parents in Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets, the book she wrote to “release the pull of a mystery that had taken up sprawling real estate in my mind for too long.”

That her birth name is the same as the fictional girl detective Judy Bolton popular in the 1930s and 1940s, only fuels her curiosity. “It was the case of a lifetime,” she writes. The book is her personal, emotional detective story.

The prologue sets the tone and the tension. In the summer of 1985, a thick envelope arrives at Bolton-Fasman’s New York City apartment from her father who has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She’s hopeful that the envelope might contain some sort of final confession that could put an end to her lifelong questions about his trastiendas, the word her Cuban mother used to describe secrets.

“The letter might be telling me that my father no longer had dreams to comfort him,” she writes. “After all, a trastienda is a dark, dank place, and this letter carried a whiff of that because no one’s trastiendas were more hidden away than those of my parents.”

But just as she is about to open it, she sees the flickering red light of her answering machine. Thinking it might be her ex-boyfriend whose swift departure has left her reeling, she hits the play button and hears her father’s voice imploring her not to open the letter. He says, “I need you to burn it.”

Another daughter might ignore that request. But when it came to her father, she writes, “obedience had always prevailed.” She placed a lighter to the envelope and dutifully let it burn in a metal garbage can, watching as the trastiendas disintegrated into ash—secrets she suspected “had the power to crack open the sky.”

I, too, would have wanted to know the contents of that package. But like Bolton-Fasman, I was a good Jewish girl who sensed that something wasn’t quite right: that there was a missing piece, a truth unspoken, a successful silencing.

But one needs to be ready. Bolton-Fasman writes, “If I opened the envelope, I would come face to face with secrets I was still too afraid to learn.”

What follows is a sensitively written account of her fact-finding quest for answers—many of which she finds, some not conclusively—powered by her curiosity and her strong Jewish faith. Ultimately reciting the traditional Jewish Kaddish prayer for her father after his death helped bring her some clarity.

“…Kaddish was symbolic of a spiritual anechoic chamber in which my public acknowledgment of God’s presence harmonized with the private silence of my grief. Even after I had finished the eleven-month ritual, the words of the Kaddish played out in the endless symphony of silence my father had left behind.”

The book’s title does a beautiful job of framing the story in metaphor. Bolton-Fasman grew up on a street named Asylum, in Hartford, Connecticut. This word is simultaneously associated with the idea of protection and security, but also an institution supporting the mentally ill. She describes her Cuban mother as a “beautiful hysteric” and “an emotional terrorist” and her Connecticut-born father as “a noble man” whom she followed around the house because he knew how to do practical things. Growing up on Asylum Street was both “refuge and madness,” she writes.

This tension holds the reader’s interest, while mirroring Bolton-Fasman’s internal struggle. She was a curious girl living in a family of secrets—two things that usually don’t go well together. Yet, her deep desire to know illustrates how the search to unlock secrets through words can be its own reward.

There’s a Jewish teaching, Bolton-Fasman writes, that an uninterpreted dream is like an unopened letter from God. Asylum is a return to that unopened letter from her father that allows her to share her own interpretation.

Ellen Blum Barish’s memoir, Seven Springs (Shanti Arts), about breaking a long-held silence, was published in May 2021. Her essays have appeared in Tablet, Full Grown People, Literary Mama, and the Brevity blog, and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is the founding editor of Thread, which earned four notables in Best American Essays, and the author of the essay collection Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life (Adams Street Publishing, 2007). Barish teaches writing and offers private coaching for essayists and memoirists.

A Review Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops: A Memoir by Allison Hong Merrill

September 24, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Jennifer Lang

In her debut memoir, Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops, Allison Hong Merrill chronicles her life from early childhood in an abusive home in one country to marriage to the man of her naïve dreams in another. Night after night, I put my legs up my living room wall or crawled under my covers in bed desperate to know she will survive and overcome the obstacles and challenges along the way: a father who disowns her, a mother who cannot mother her, a cruel husband who uproots and deceives her.

From the first sentence, “I discovered that I became a starter wife from a light switch,” the reader understands that something is amiss. There is a hint of foreign. A curiosity about a starter wife and its connection to electricity. A spark of humor.

When the first Mormon missionaries, Elder Copinga and Elder York, “both taller than the doorframe,” show up in Hong Merrill’s father’s house in Hualien, Taiwan when she is 12, I feel relieved. Hopeful. If her parents don’t understand how to love her and her siblings or how to make them feel safe or free to be themselves, whether healthy or handicapped (her younger sister had cerebral palsy), smart or stupid (Hong Merrill is the former but criticized for being the latter), then perhaps these devout American men and the religion they represent do.

Hong Merrill’s story covers myriad themes—family loyalty, true friendship, the meaning of independence, belief in a higher being, happiness—but the two that stand out are power (or lack thereof) and choice. In the beginning, she is powerless against unloving parents and choice-less amidst a culture that deems women inferior and invisible. But as she grows up, finds the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, meets the Bushmans whom she calls her rebirth parents, and moves to a country where women count, she eventually understands that she can take back her power and make her own choices in life. Because of her upbringing in a traditional Asian culture, she thinks she needs a man to take care of her, but what she learns first in Texas and later in Utah, first married and later divorced and alone, is that she needs to believe in herself. A beautiful message for all women from every culture.

Divided into 11 parts, each of the 99 chapters is short, sometimes only one page. While the story is linear, she moves within and between places, offering occasional time stamps to anchor us. Sprinkled throughout the text are Chinese proverbs, Mormon teachings, Rumi’s poetry, and wise sayings that she explains and refers to in subsequent chapters.

Hong Merrill’s capacity for reflection astounds me. She writes:

Looking back, part of me wants to warn my younger self to get on the next flight and run away from Cameron. He would become my nemesis. His words would replace mine. His voice would silence mine… But another part of me knows that the hardships I was about to suffer in Texas were the refiner’s fire. If I endured well, I would gain more strength and compassion.

And then there’s her wit; to describe the boys she deems handsome, she compares them to Hollywood actors like Cameron is Bruce Willis’s doppelgänger, Drake Hugh Grant.

Along the same lines, she has a keen ability to see and poke fun at herself, enviable for any memoir writer. When introducing herself to the building manager in Texas, a woman who had never heard her speak, she writes:

But the real surprise was hearing myself say the name that my tenth-grade English teacher had given me the way Americans do, without mixing up the L and R—one of the English-language learning curves that most Chinese people struggle with. Not Ayhreesong. I said Allison. The parting of my lips + the tip of my tongue kicking off the back of my upper front teeth + the soft dropping of my tongue + short hissing sss juxtaposed with the nasal ending = Allison. I said that.

This memoir moved me not only because it’s wrought with tension and well written but also because like the narrator, I am an immigrant living in a place where religion surrounds me: an American Jew in Israel. But the similarities stop there because unlike her, I moved here on my own accord in my early twenties, knowing I can always buy a return ticket and go home to northern California or anywhere in the United States no matter what. A freedom that I took for granted until I grew up and saw more of the world.

Jennifer Lang’s essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Ascent, Hippocampus, and forthcoming in Consequence, among others. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Assistant Editor for Brevity. Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, she and her husband spent three decades packing and unpacking, rooting and uprooting in search of home. Finally, they settled in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio and searches for a special press to publish her first memoir in vignettes.

A Review of Margaret Renkl’s Graceland, At Last

September 20, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Sarah White

As a memoirist who most often chooses the brief essay form, I’ve wondered how my personal essays might hang together as a collection. For that reason, I was drawn to Margaret Renkl’s Graceland, At Last. Having discovered, earlier this year, her 2019 book Late Migrations, I welcomed the chance to spend more time with her closely observed, intensely humane, and always brief writing.

Renkl was offered a monthly New York Times op-ed column about “the flora, fauna, politics and culture of the American South”—a dream job for any essayist. These columns were published between 2018 and 2020, and that period from mid-Trump-reign to full-on pandemic inflects in nearly every one.

Renkl considered organizing principles for the collection such as chronology (strict or loose) and grouping by approach before settling on “a kind of patchwork quilt, the art form of my maternal ancestors.” Oh, those ancestors! As in Late Migrations, they leap off the pages here. In “Why I Wear Five Wedding Rings,” about stage fright during her book tour for Late Migrations, Renkl writes, “…I prefer to think the family matriarchy saved me, that my beloved elders closed ranks around me, my mother and mother-in-law on one flank, my grandmother and great-grandmother on the other, to shore me up and give me strength.” In “Remembrance of Recipes Past,” she slew me with, “For me it is always both heartbreaking and comforting to open my mother’s recipe box on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” (My mother was no cook.) If you loved Renkl’s writing about nature and family in Late Migrations, the sections of Graceland, At Last grouped under Flora & Fauna, Environment, and Family & Community will delight you.

Graceland, At Last could easily be used as a text for teaching journalism. The essays in the sections on Politics, Social Justice, and Arts & Culture are exemplary—reviews of concerts and museum openings, op-eds that touch on the complications of life in Tennessee as “a red-state liberal,” argument essays against issues like the death penalty and unrestrained gentrification. “We may never agree on what real justice looks like, but we will always know mercy when we see it. And mercy will do,” she writes in “An Act of Mercy in Tennessee,” about clemency granted to a sixteen-year-old who killed her pimp. As a journalist, she practices Appreciative Inquiry—finding and covering the good going on in the world. Her journalism is always cogent but blended with personal reflection that ties public events to her singular, sensitive soul.

And how I love Renkl’s gift for language! From the introduction: “To love a person is always to love in spite of the faults that intimacy reveals, and so it is with a place. To love the South is to see with clear eyes both its terrible darkness and its dazzling light, and to spend a lifetime trying to make sense of both.” From ”The Flower that Came Back from the Dead,” about preserving the Tennessee coneflower from extinction: “There’s a great danger in hope, as Roxane Gay has pointed out: ‘Hope allows us to leave what is possible in the hands of others….’” From “The Misunderstood, Maligned Rattlesnake”: “I’ve mostly made peace with the fact that the peaceable kingdom is anything but. All day long and all night long, too, … every creature … is both trying to eat and trying not to be eaten.” 

Renkl is so likable, as a writer and an individual, with her rich family traditions, her concern for justice, and her observant and unsentimental love of nature, that every paragraph feels like a conversation with a friend.

One quibble, unavoidable since all these essays appeared as New York Times columns: the word count of each is nearly identical. The book is better taken in brief dips rather than sustained reading, where the lack of variety in pacing starts to annoy. At some point, I started to long for a sense of a larger narrative. There is none, but the juxtapositions created by Renkl’s selection and ordering of these more than sixty columns is thought-provoking. The book is full of gifts for the reader but even more for anyone who, like Renkl and me, enjoys writing in the essay form.

Sarah White provides writing services for individuals, families, businesses, and communities from her home base in Madison, Wisconsin. Typical projects include books, articles, and life histories. She also teaches memoir writing through small-group workshops and one-on-one coaching.

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 § 29 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.

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