A Review of Lee Martin’s Gone the Hard Road

June 30, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Debbie Hagan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Gone the Hard Road, Martin tells his story of growing up in rural Illinois with great passion, love, and undying hope.
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Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.

A Review of Marcia Meier’s Face: A Memoir

June 11, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Lisa Rizzo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the end, Meier returns to Muskegon where her story began, completing the cycle. She makes a pilgrimage to the important places of childhood: her family home, the site of her former school, the intersection where she was struck by the car. Completing the cycle by facing those places from her past helps Meier begin the next part of her journey.
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Lisa Rizzo is a poet who has to turned nonfiction. She is the author of Always a Blue House (Saddle Road Press, 2016) and In the Poem an Ocean (Big Table Publishing, 2011). Her work has appeared in various journals including Calyx, Longridge Review, The MacGuffin, and Brevity blog. A newly retired teacher, she lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where she is working on a memoir. Visit her at www.lisarizzowriter.com.

Review of Cassandra Lane’s We Are Bridges

May 26, 2021 § 3 Comments

by Melissa Greenwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Review Kate Lebo’s The Book of Difficult Fruit

May 5, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Jehanne Dubrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am closer than ever,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

A Review of Deborah A. Lott’s Don’t Go Crazy Without Me

April 30, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Claire Donohue Roof

Deborah A. Lott’s Don’t Go Crazy Without Me: A Tragicomic Memoir is the story of a young woman’s coming of age and how she separates her own identity from her family’s. She recalls comedic and painful situations from her young childhood to teenage years.

Her story starts in 1968, in California, when Lott is sixteen and in the waiting room of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. Her father is hospitalized and even though doctors haven’t pinpointed her father’s illness, he is treated with electroconvulsive therapy.

When a psychiatrist examines young Lott, he labels her as paranoid schizophrenic:

My mother came back and sat down in the waiting room next to me, her hazel eyes wet. After living with my father, my mother seemed so innocent, so taken off guard by what was happening to her family.

“What did you tell him?” she said. “What kind of crazy mishegoss did you tell him? Nobody understands how suggestible you are.”

My mother was right; the doctor had misdiagnosed me. The clarity of her gaze snapped me back into reality. The dissonance stopped. I re-entered my body. All I wanted at that moment was to be normal. Well, not ordinary-normal, of course, but special-normal.

From here, Lott shows how the damaged, eccentric father stays in his bathrobe most of the day, working from home with his wife in an insurance business.

Alliances form within the family. Lott’s two older brothers bond with their mother. Lott allies with the father. Even though the father brings both fear and joy, his outrageous behaviors and beliefs diminishes these fleeting pleasures. Themes of failing fathers, shame mixed with love, divided loyalties, and survivor guilt run through this book.

Members of this family all struggle for love and attention. The father asks his daughter to spy on her mother. When the father falls deeper into his mental breakdown, the mother recruits Lott as her ally and asks her to babysit him. All the while, the author worries she might inherit his mental illness.

I felt deeply for Lott, who is afraid and worried about her father and herself. When my father was eighteen years old, walking down a dark road, he was hit by a car and suffered a traumatic brain injury. The Navy patched him together and honorably discharged him. He wandered through many Catholic colleges using the G.I. Bill. My mother, a registered nurse, married him ten years after the accident. She’d learn of it only after their wedding, when my paternal grandmother explained what had happened. My mother would take my father to many doctors and help him finish his degree in English at Notre Dame College. While he could quote Shakespeare, he could not hold down a job. He would get depressed, stay at home in his blue pajamas and white robe, and fret. Finally, my mother made him check into the VA hospital in Indianapolis.

I was a daydreaming middle child, easily forgetting my lunch money or gloves. I remember going with my mother and siblings to visit my father in the hospital after he’d had electroconvulsive treatments. He smiled at us all not knowing who we were. Eventually, he never came home and divorced my mother. There were times I wondered, like Lott, would I become my father? My mother insisted I would not. She’d say, I had inherited his good traits.

Don’t’ Go Crazy Without Me is an earnest look at a misfit family struggling financially and emotionally in the 1950s and 1960s in California. Place and time weave through these eccentric characters’ lives. What makes us laugh in this book also makes us cry.

As Lott enters her teenage years, she pulls away from her father. She gains more independence, builds her own narrative, takes up her own causes. The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War are both underway, and she sees a bigger world outside her family—an escape from her nightmares.

Eventually Lott chooses love over grief and loss, and, in the end, it redeems her.

Along the way, I realized Lott’s story not only echoes my own narrative with my father, but also raises questions. Readers, like me, might look back at their childhood and wonder, how did we become the adults we are today? How did Lott make her way to become a successful person…a writer? How does she connect with her siblings now that her parents are gone?

Lott led me through her journey with wit and forbearance. Her memories are vivid and distilled to a fine pitch. Lott’s beautifully rendered storytelling helped me understand my own father’s struggle for a place not just in the family, but in the world. Her ability to not only survive her childhood, but to come to terms with it is a triumph of hope. In spite of the narrator’s wounds from father’s issues and her family’s tangled relationships, she perseveres and finds ways to heal and move on.

I connected to the ways this narrator overcame her obstacles. I highly recommend this book for its honesty, its humor, and its bravery. It has enabled me to see a way to come to terms with my own father’s legacy.
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Claire Donohue Roof is an assistant professor in English at Ivy Tech Community College in South Bend, Indiana. Her poetry has appeared in the Mockingheart Review, Common Ground Review, Pirene’s Fountain, and the Flint Hills Review. She is working on a memoir.

A Review of Jennifer De Leon’s White Space

April 28, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Debbie Hagan

In the foreword to White Space: Essays on Race, Culture, and Writing, Jennifer De Leon tells of  a tragedy that changed her life. In eighth grade, she and her family traveled to California to visit aunts, uncles, and cousins whom she’d never met. As a way to introduce herself, she created the “Jenn Album,” a compilation of some of her favorite pictures. On the way home, however, the family was robbed, losing everything: suitcases, jewelry, camcorder, and the “Jenn Album.”

As I read this, my heart breaks. Old photos not only take me back in time and place, but also trigger sensory memories. I can hear my grandmother’s voice, recall that pungent first taste of  licorice, hear the waves from the Jersey Shore, feel the bake of sun on my face, taste the salt on my lips, feel the first wriggle of a newborn in my arms. Take away the photos and, for me, time travel stops.

“I would spend my life making up for the family fotos that had been ripped from me in a matter of minutes,” writes De Leon.

Journaling, creating a “photo album of words,” is her first step in writing White Space, a collection of twenty-one essays that would win the Juniper Prize for Creative Nonfiction offered by the University of Massachusetts Press.

As the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants who fled their homeland amid genocide and civil war, De Leon contemplates not only what it means to be a Guatemalan-American woman, but to comprehend the struggles her parents endured—giving up their language, family, friends, and a world they once called home.  

In the opening essay, “Mapping Yolanda,” De Leon shows us a dark side of immigration. De Leon is twelve when she meets her uncle’s new wife, Yolanda. She’s a fourteen-year-old girl with a baby kicking in her belly.

Back in the seventies when De Leon’s parents immigrated to America, “their lives dramatically improved. They worked hard, saved money, and in the early eighties bought their first house.”

However, this is not Yolanda’s story. Back in Guatemala, she was living in poverty. She was raped in the brothel where her mother worked. Though De Leon’s uncle tries to save her, Yolanda is so traumatized, she’s mentally unstable and attacks him. The next time De Leon sees Yolanda, she’s living in poverty with a man who’s not her uncle, and she has two more children. 

Some Americans don’t feel much empathy or compassion towards immigrants, because they have not had this experience and don’t understand it. De Leon becomes aware of this at school:

Once, in World Politics, a student in the front row with a blond ponytail and high-pitched voice declared that it was unjust for ATMs in America to offer Spanish as a language option. “Why don’t people just learn to speak English?” The hardwood floors and ceiling-high windows closed in, and I could feel eighty eyes on me. What did I have to say? Me, the Spanish-speaking representative in our classroom. I raised a shaking hand and said, “Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the word Florida means ‘flowered’ in Spanish and that Colorado means ‘red’ or ‘colored.’ These are words in Spanish because the Spanish were actually here before the English. 

In the book’s title essay, “The White Space,” De Leon’s father decides, after surviving cancer, to go back to work. He asks De Leon to help him write his resume.

“My parents can speak English,” she writes. “They can write in English too.” Even so, her father needs help with the language’s nuances and idiosyncrasies.

When De Leon reviews her father’s history, she realizes an employer needs to know more than just the cold facts about him. In the space for “objective,” De Leon wants to write: “to obtain a position within society that values the work of an immigrant, a husband, a son, a brother, a cancer survivor, a father, a smart and humble man who only wants to do more on weekdays than watch The Price Is Right while simmering rice.”

She continues, “I reflect on what is not on my father’s résumé, what is in the white space outside the education, professional experience, skills categories, and how it is the richness of this white space that I want to explore.” 

To better know her father and herself, De Leon travels to Xela, Guatemala. She climbs up the highest volcano in Central America, becomes fluent in Spanish, and performs a skit in the Spanish version of “Vagina Monologues,” which not only liberates her, but bonds her to the village women.

It’s a far cry from what happens to her in “The White Ceiling.” As a student at Connecticut College, De Leon makes the biggest decision in her life (at least at this point). Because she’s Latinx and Catholic, contraception is a bigger taboo than pre-marital sex. Even so, she’s determined to go to a gynecologist to obtain birth control pills. At the front desk, she reminds the receptionist to send the bill to her—not  her parents. Yet, the receptionist pays little attention.

“This is why so many young Latinas don’t get birth control,” she writes. “It’s an altogether unfamiliar and uncomfortable experience. There are too many walls to break down. Making the appointment over the phone when your parents aren’t home (and not giving a return number for confirmation); driving to the clinic and feeling humiliated, ashamed, and doubtful in the waiting room; and then making it into the exam room where the staff continues to patronize you.”

She adds, “This is why so many of us find ourselves in the same position, under the same white ceiling, later—when it’s too late to get birth control. Yet, I wanted a different path. And so I chose it.”

De Leon’s essay might end with a victorious Latinx girl, obtaining birth control, defying her parents and cultural norms. Yet, as with most of De Leon’s stories, she rarely travels the predictable path, and this one offers a twist. It’s just one of the ways De Leon resonates with readers, opens their minds, and persuades them to see the human side of the immigrant story.  
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Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have been included in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.  

A Review of Gina Nutt’s Night Rooms

April 22, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Amie Souza Reilly

I’ve never been to Ithaca, but I know that it is famous for its gorges, that the land in that part of New York was carved out by glaciers and now deep cuts cleave the rock. A gorge is a gash in the earth. “Gorge” is also a verb and it means “to eat a large amount greedily; fill oneself with food.” The gorges of Ithaca roar with falls of water, which is both vital to life and deadly.

In Gina Nutt’s stunning essay collection Night Rooms, she writes this of Ithaca, where she is from, “Bridges sprawling from the gouged earth are famous for epic views, notorious for people who have climbed over and let go.”

Hers is a collection told in fragments and juxtapositions wherein she darts like a minnow between examinations of beauty and horror movies, from final girls to being the final girl. “Events inspiring chainsaw massacres: Summer vacation, a road trip. A cannibal family living in a house of hoarded, dusty objects collected from victims. Almost everyone dies. Someone gets away in the end, but not really because the driver in the flagged-down car is a villain. Or the survivor goes to a hospital and when she stares out the window all she sees is a sunset and a fence, a man in a suit, tie, and white shirt. The man swings a chainsaw at the horizon. The blade splits the sky from the earth.”

So much of what she writes is about splits: trauma and scars, terror and sadness, desire and danger, watching and being watched, “…the difference between something regretted and something unwanted.”

Most often I was struck by the way Nutt writes in and about the split between grief and trauma. Throughout these sections and chapters is the haunt of suicide deaths. Her great uncle, her father-in-law, and the strangers who jump into the cracks of the earth where she lives. In chapter two she quotes from Joy Williams’ essay “Sharks and Suicide”:

Not many of us die from love or terror these days, and there are few thoughts left that touch us with true horror. But there are some, certainly. There’s one. Earth’s nightmare is the sea.

These essays, though, are not only about the division between grief and trauma, but what links the two—fascination and fear. Horror films work as a bridge, a way to find balance from one thought to another, but we know that bridges are also where people sometimes jump. “I am looking for a balance between mourning and moving on. How does it look to not be so enamored with the image of the final girl—the one who survives—that we forget, or disavow, our dead (selves).”

I think about the ways we live with fear and in fear of dying. I am afraid of heights. Though I have never been to Ithaca, I have been to Ausable Chasm, also in New York, a different place where land gaps fill with water. When I was there, each turn of the trail held the promise of plummet, each crest the capacity for death. There is so much possibility for grief at the edge of a cliff.

There is so much possibility for grief in places of danger, and what Nutt writes seems to remind us that danger exists not only in horror movies, but in places of beauty, in places where we should feel safe. Violence can mix with pleasure, can confuse feelings of desire. How thin that gap can be. Gapes in the earth don’t have to be gorges, they can be small. There was a pit behind an apartment she once lived in; Nutt writes about it within a paragraph about a man who gets too close, puts his hands on her while she’s trying to sleep, and though he is the one crossing the line, she is the one who leaves the room. “The pit had a reputation.” It is a scene so familiar it hurts to read it.

When terror is familiar it need not be explicit. When Nutt writes of horror movies, she often leaves out the film’s titles, but we know them, because we’ve been there, seen them. The knowledge of the terror already exists as a memory inside us.

And yet, even though it doesn’t come as a surprise, it stops the heart. A leap. Fragment to fragment, cliff edge to cliff edge, a breath held over the gap.
___

Amie Souza Reilly is an MFA candidate at Fairfield University and is the Assistant Managing Editor at Brevity Magazine. Her work can be found in trampset, Catapult, SmokeLong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and son. 

A Review of Jana Larson’s Reel Bay: A Cinematic Essay

April 16, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Rachael Hanel

A picture in a newspaper in 1999 sent me on a journey to find out more about a woman who is impossible to know. Jana Larson, too, also saw a newspaper article that began a nearly 20-year journey to find out more about a woman who is impossible to know.

Sometimes I can’t believe I’ve put more than twenty years into the research and writing of my subject—practically half my life. So as I read Larson’s Reel Bay: A Cinematic Essay, I didn’t feel so alone—here was another writer pursuing questions that have no answers.

The subject of Larson’s book is Takako Konishi, a Japanese woman who in 2001 traveled to North Dakota and then Minnesota, where she died in a grove of trees on a chilly November night. The surface story is that Konishi had been searching for the money Steve Buscemi’s character in Fargo buries, not realizing that the movie was fictional.

Larson is captivated by the story and begins her search, ostensibly to make a documentary for her MFA degree. But as Larson investigates, she uncovers a parallel story about herself. What was Konishi really looking for? What is Larson looking for? Is she truly trying to figure out Konishi, or is she trying to figure out herself?

This is a story about obsession. Larson cannot quite define why she’s so intrigued by Konishi. She becomes a reporter, following Konishi’s trail to Bismarck and Fargo and Detroit Lakes. She moves to Japan at first to help a friend shoot a documentary, but then decides to stay to continue her quest for answers about Konishi.

The format of the book is inventive, switching between essay and screenplay. We see how Larson imagines telling Konishi’s story in script form in myriad ways. At times Larson portrays scenes from her own life in the screenplay format as well.

The book is divided into seven chapters called “reels.” I was most captivated in the early reels, where Larson tracks Konishi’s trail in North Dakota and Minnesota. We also spend quite a bit of time in San Diego, where Larson attends film school. We see her frustrations in making the film about Konishi and other her struggles as a student, such as lack of motivation, getting caught up in an unfulfilling relationship, and low self-confidence.

But the inventive nature of the narrative doesn’t always proceed seamlessly. I was less impressed with the last two reels, which take place in Japan. At times they felt long and could have used a thorough edit. The exposition started to take on the feel of “this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.” We are introduced to many characters, some of whom only make a brief appearance and then are not mentioned again.

Most of the book is written in second person. Reel 6 starts in second person but then abruptly switches to third person and stays there until the end of the book. I was distracted trying to find the reason for the perspective switch. The author uses the initial “B” to refer to herself, which confused me at first. This narrator is clearly the author, but I don’t know why the initial “B” was chosen.

But I appreciated the creative and artistic approach, which offsets any of the criticisms I have. This book is a unique blend of reportage, memoir, essay, and biography.
____

Rachael Hanel is a writer and associate professor of mass communication at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She is querying her manuscript, Breaking Point: One Woman’s Transformation from Activist to Radical in 1970s America. You can find her on Twitter (@Rachael18) and Instagram (rachael_hanel).

A Review of Courtney Zoffness’s Spilt Milk

April 9, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Nicole Graev Lipson

On a recent morning, I poked my head into my son’s room during virtual school. It was literacy period, and his teacher was introducing his second grade class to the concept of “mirrors” and “windows.” Say you’re a boy who lives in New England and loves birds, and you read a book about a boy who lives in New England and loves birds. That story would be a “mirror” reflecting your world. But if you’re this same boy, and you read a book about a girl who lives in Madagascar and loves astronomy, that story would be a “window,” opening onto a world beyond your own.

Our reading life should be full of both mirrors and windows, said his teacher.

I loved these metaphors, not only for their poetry, but their order—the way they seized on an activity as mysterious and amorphous as reading and arranged it into tidy categories. As I went about my day, I considered some of my own favorite books, designating each a “window” or a “mirror.” This was satisfying, like organizing a mess of papers into labeled file folders.

It was with this framework in mind that I read Courtney Zoffness’s debut essay collection Spilt Milk. The parallels between Zoffness’s life and mine are striking. She is a Jewish woman who grew up in New York in the 1980s, and I am a Jewish woman who grew up in New York in the 1980s! She has two young sons, and I have a young son! She lives in Brooklyn, and I live in Brookline—which is basically the Brooklyn of Boston. If we read, in part, to see ourselves reflected, here was a book thatcalled to me like a tremendous, shining mirror.

But from the very first of its ten searching and exquisitely-wrought essays, Spilt Milk made me question whether human experience can be so neatly divided. Circling around themes of motherhood, daughterhood, friendship, and spirituality, Zoffness’s writing illuminates, again and again, the porousness of boundaries between “self” and “other.” In the opening essay, “The Only Thing We Have to Fear,” Zoffness evokes this permeability through the lens of parenthood, tracing a thread between her five-year-old son’s anxieties and her own childhood worries and introducing a question that drives much of the collection: to what extent can we control what we inherit—from generations past, and from our culture?

Zoffness recounts turning to medical textbooks to better understand “parent-child transfer.” In its humility and poetry, her own writing emerges as an alternative to these texts, illuminating the interplay between parent and child in a way their “dense, inscrutable” language does not. Through her tender descriptions of her son’s struggles, she evokes the double-edged sensation—so common to parenthood—of feeling at once fiercely protective and culpable. In one achingly poignant scene, Zoffness attempts to comfort her son after a nightmare, but he shrinks from her. He has dreamed, he finally confides, that she was a monster. “He wants reassurance that I am who I say I am. That I’m not a demon disguised as his mom,” Zoffness writes. “He makes me pinky swear. Breath snags on a branch in my throat.”

In “Ultra Sound,” Zoffness flips the parent-child lens, probing the boundaries between herself and her own deeply private mother. In the 1960’s—a past Zoffness knows only from the wall of memorabilia in her childhood den—Zoffness’s mother was a folk singer, part of a duo that once shared a stage with Van Morrison and opened for the Doors. Zoffness captures her life-long yearning to understand a woman who has eluded her, a “paint-by-number profile with only some sections filled in.” As an adult, she finally hears an old recording of her mother singing, her voice sonorous and beautiful: “Each note from the record player is a portal I want to pass through,” Zoffness writes. Ultimately, the essay itself becomes a portal to the understanding she craves, as Zoffness the writer uses her imaginative powers to connect her mother’s creativity and her own.

Empathic imagination is also a theme in “Holy Body.” Here, Zoffness reconnects with a childhood friend who, motivated by compassion alone, has become a surrogate mother. Zoffness longs to uncover the origins of her friend’s generosity, so “unthinkable” in its hugeness. “You will spend the next several months—and likely the rest of your life—considering your relationship to restoration, and also how you can cultivate compassion in your sons,” the narrator reflects at the essay’s end.  Zoffness’s handles the tricky second-person voice masterfully: “you” becomes not just the author, but all of us who yearn to bring forth our best selves forward into the world.

Zoffness’s essays interpose disparate scenes in such a way that meaning wells up subtly, arrestingly, in the white spaces between present and past, self and other. Form itself becomes a vehicle for compassion. These juxtapositions work particularly well in “It May All End in Aleppo,” in which Zoffness conjures her developing relationship with Sol, a Syrian-American Orthodox Jew who once enlisted her help writing his memoir. Listening to Sol’s stories of his harrowing escape from his birth country—and then filtering his memories through her own imagination in order to write about them—blurs the line between storyteller and listener. Zoffness describes:

“Here’s what happens when you slip inside someone else’s body. When you chant alongside his father on Shabbat. When you eat his mother’s lamb pies and pickled peppers. When the glasses out of which he peers get knocked from his face, and his head—your head—is bashed against a wall. Here’s what happens when you assume their nation, their faith: Your eyes change. You feel a sudden affinity for the Arabic writing on your neighborhood storefronts. You smile at the Hasidic women pushing strollers past yours on the sidewalk. No one, including you, looks exactly the same.”

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect evocation of what good writing can do for a reader than this passage, which is to dissolve the barriers that keep us from one another. Could I still, after finishing Spilt Milk, accurately call it a “mirror”? In the end, it seems to me the most revelatory writing—the writing Zoffness gorgeously achieves with this collection—isn’t a “window” or “mirror,” but a combination of the two, a shifting kaleidoscope that transforms what we see and know.

In our own reflection, it shows us a world beyond us. Pointing to the world beyond us, it shows us ourselves.
___

Nicole Graev Lipson’s essays have appeared in River TeethCreative Nonfiction, The Hudson ReviewHippocampusThe Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and selected as a “Notable Essay” in The Best American Essays. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she is working on a collection of essays. She can be reached at www.nicolegraevlipson.com.

A Review of Nicole Walker’s Processed Meats

March 22, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Jenn Gibbs

Parenthood is meeting daily the hypocrite within.

Standing in the produce aisle, I weigh my kids’ need to eat greens against the karmic repercussions of a plastic clamshell. Should I buy the unwashed bulk kale? When I’m on deadline (which is always), that is a sure path to a container of slime behind the mayo. And it’s been hard enough propelling two teen boys through the agonies of online school to add food prep to their chores.

Also, and this is important, that meaty bulk kale doesn’t taste as good as this tender baby kale. Which is organic, by the way. Surely that tips the scales. I put two in my cart and roll on over to Meat where I’ll agonize over the affordable, monstrous Valu-Pak chicken that elder teen can mow through in two days versus my preferred yet painfully priced and teensy packages of the humanely-raised, cage-free, organic stuff. I will again consider pescatarianism then recount all the reasons that hasn’t worked for us. I will repeat this ritual in front of the beef, pork, and sausage. When I finally get home, exhausted, my partner will tease me about how long I’ve been gone.

Nicole Walker would understand why grocery shopping can be a fraught ethical exercise for all but the purest of eco-warriors and climate deniers. The poet and essayist’s latest collection of creative nonfiction, Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster, is all about the tension between our appetites and ideals, our need for change and our habits as individuals and as a collective. With wit and wide-ranging imagery, she places her own warring drives and impulses in the center of the plate, revealing how a self can be a microcosm of a society that can’t seem to bring the body in line with the logic for a healthier planet.

The collection opens with “Salmon of the Apocalypse,” on cooking fish in the desert to ward off the hypothetical crisis of Y2K, and ends with the very real crisis caused by COVID-19 in “Impurities” and “The Body.” Throughout, Walker wrangles with a chronic dissonance between appreciating the case for zero population growth and meatless living on one side and a deep desire to create babies and eat bacon and beefsteak on the other. “My dream of becoming a pure vegetarian fails,” she admits, “just like any of my dreams of being purely pure.”

Throughout the book, Walker presents the joy and terror of motherhood refreshingly free of sentimentality and mingled with ecological concerns. “What the Dirt Knows” juxtaposes an inability to get pregnant with the difficulty of growing tomatoes after environmental degradation—both conditions made more puzzling against a family history of prolific fertility of both womb and garden. “Anti-Bodies,” “Veal,” and “Move Out” set harrowing experiences with a premature infant alongside botulism, meat production, and air quality. “Pork Technologies” intersperses the anxiety of listening for wheezing lungs during the H1N1 pandemic and solutions for CO2 overload in the atmosphere with a hodgepodge of porcine-related ponderings such as how to prepare pork belly and one highly memorable way that housing a pig in an apartment can go awry. (My note in the margin there: “I can’t unsee this.”)

These essays are studded with moments of delight, many the result of low-simmering, situational humor bubbling up. Did someone mean to compliment Walker’s restraint at limiting herself to two kids—or two steaks? And while Walker doesn’t mug for her audience, I could swear she’s inviting us to laugh along as she serves poached salmon that falls squarely into the trap her cousin’s boyfriend (irritatingly, to this reader at least) warned against? Environmental writing skews toward the somber for good reason, and while Walker hits low and mid-range notes beautifully as well, a bit of levity is part of living at the intersection of competing values. There’s a compassionate wisdom to the wit in this collection, an understanding that we sometimes have to fumble along with ambiguity or the consequences of making what, in retrospect, proves to have been a bad call. After all, without joy, hope, or pleasure, what is the point? “[T]hese babies and these steaks are so delicious and there is only one life to live and we should dig in an enjoy it.”

For readers accustomed to essays structured around chronological, causal relationships, Walker’s lyric-dominant approach to form may feel as disconcerting as being served a taco with everything but the tortilla that holds it together—a dish described in “What the Dirt Knows.” Narrative is an important yet secondary ingredient in this book, where transitions tend to be associative. “Trying to get pregnant is lot like trying to make cheese,” opens the brief and delightful “How to Make Mozzarella,” which then leaps, not to cheese (which comes along in a moment), but to climate change. Yet these junctures are more than quirks of Walker’s style; they contribute to the book’s theme: the interdependence of individual and collective bodies, culture, and the environment.

Sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, always peripatetic, Walker’s meditations offer not answers but companionship for anyone who tries and fails to align rational mind with all the other parts that come into play when guiding the choices we make for ourselves, our dependents, and the wider world. Processed Meats makes the point that we’re in the thick of it, here and now, together. As Walker writes, “We establish boundaries between you and I but what if there really is no separation?” Whether or not we buy the prewashed greens encased in plastic, eat the steak, or have the babies, we are inseparable from one another, our planet, and all that we turn to for nourishment.
___

Jenn Gibbs is a writer, editor, and communication Swiss Army knife specializing in prose forms and the creative process. Her stories and essays have appeared in literary journals and anthologies including The Gettysburg Review, Ocean State Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Literature and Racial Ambiguity. She makes art, a living, and a life in Salt Lake City.

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