A Review of SJ Sindu’s Dominant Genes

April 29, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Hannah White

When I was a girl, my grandmother taught me how to sew. She was quite young for a grandmother—always mistaken by strangers for my mother—but she was obsessed with old things. Her basement was littered with antiques: a giant loom for weaving blankets, a sewing machine with a foot pedal, colorful textiles, and furs. She wanted me to learn things the old way, the right way.

I spent afternoons by her burning wood stove, practicing stitching together scraps of fabric or watching the steady tap of her foot as she powered her sewing machine, making intricate matching sets from designs in sewing books and magazines. I wanted this power—my grandmother’s power of creation—but I didn’t have the patience or, as I grew older, the time.

Often instead of practicing, I’d just peruse through her sewing or knitting catalogs, admiring the beautiful, delicate stitching and imagining myself ornamented in these garments. But it was this imagining that I enjoyed even more than the act of sewing, and I soon unstuck myself from this activity and turned to reading, and then writing, stitching together words where fabric once was.

In the opening of her new chapbook Dominant Genes, SJ Sindu writes, “My mother, out of love, stitches up my heart, pulling the thread tight to make sure it won’t rupture again at the same spot.” In this hybrid collection of lyric essays and poems, Sindu explores issues related to familial expectations and the construction of nonbinary and queer identities with a voice that powerfully simmers both with anger and hope.

Raised in a Sri Lankan family in which matrilineal expectations are strict and heavy, the speaker is filled with a rage that her mother finds problematic. Since she turned twenty, her parents have been trying to marry her off, but Sindu has inherited an anger that has been, “folded up in the pleats of cotton sarees, transmuted from the heads of our mothers at the same time they scolded us for not knowing how to cook roti, and how will we keep a man happy?” Wanting a life and identity of her own, cut off from these expectations, Sindu questions if her own happiness could ever be compatible with her mother’s.

Though anger ties Sindu to her mother and her ancestors, it is also what her mother believes to be what prevents Sindu from finding a suitable match, from choosing that path she wants for her daughter. Sindu writes, “We learn our anger through osmosis, or maybe it’s in the breast milk, spreading through our veins long before we learn how to look only at the floor and walk without showing our ankles.” In her mother Sindu sees both a mirror—anger reflecting back at herself—and a wall, an ending of a long string of inherited traumas, only Sindu holding the scissors.

Sindu posits anger as something somehow both inherited yet not compatible with tradition. She shows this outright: “You’re going to end up alone, my mother tells me. It’s because of your anger. Your anger pushes men away.” Blurring the lines between past and present, fact and fiction, Sindu’s poems and lyric essays are strung together tightly by this tension between mother and daughter, between a life worth living and a life willed onto one by the past, by tradition. Sindu turns truth on its head in this genre-bending hybrid collection, making readers see for themselves the complexities of inherence and tradition.

Sindu comes out to her mother three times: “I tell my mother I’m bisexual. Bi, from the Latin dui, the Greek di, the Sanskrit dvi. Meaning double. Having two. Living in two. I have bifurcated: my life, brown and white; my family, my parents and me; my body, masculine and feminine.” Each time Sindu comes out, her mother tells her she “can still marry a man and have children, that [she doesn’t] have to be different. Bi, meaning two paths. One path lets [her] stay in their lives. The other sees [her] cast out.” Her mother gives her this choice—it is her decision to make whether she will remain tethered or cut free. She feels she must choose to be true to her own identity or to play pretend for the sake of others.

She tries to “stitch [her] two selves back together.” She goes on dates with men who tell her she will have to hide who she is. She entertains men who are tolerant of her identity if it is kept hidden, not strung up plainly for the world to see. But Sindu has always “had a serpent tongue,” one that can cut with a bite, destroy, sever.

Sindu explores ancient stories like Draupadi the beautiful heroine of the Hindu epic, Mahabharata who is punished and called a whore for denying men’s advances. Sindu wants to rewrite Draupadi’s tragic story.  She wants her to “get world-shakingly mad,” her “rage to cut through everything and spin the world into new string.” In this chapbook, Sindu rewrites stories like these, speaking what others would silence.

In these stories, some genes might be dominant, but so is Sindu’s will. And Sindu makes it clear that the same strings that bind us to our past can be pulled too tight, cut off circulation, make us bleed.
___

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. She sometimes lurks on twitter @Hannah4White.

A Review of Suzanne Roberts’ Animal Bodies

April 20, 2022 § 1 Comment

By Elizabeth Bales Frank

Grief is a canyon that rings with unexpected echoes.

Suzanne Roberts’ latest essay collection Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties relates her experience with all of these things: grief, its canyons, and its echoes. “The essay is an accumulation of grief. Mother says to get over it,” reads a paragraph from the collection’s opening essay “The Essay Determines How It Will Begin” (which first appeared in Brevity). A common reply to grief is “get over it.” The very phrasing of this curt dismissal, however, acknowledges that grief seeks you into a depth. “The Essay Determines How It Will Begin,” even in its title, echoes the famous final line of a Dylan Thomas poem: “After the first death, there is no other.”

Animal Bodies explores several of Roberts’ personal losses due to death: the death of each parent, of a cherished friend, of a faithful dog, and even of a forgotten high school torment—but also due to life: the erosion produced by the tension between sexual desire and the sexual shame, the dissolution of an off-again, on-again marriage, the encroachment by age on the carefree reliance on a strong healthy body. Life is grief; grief accumulates.

The fundamental grief for Roberts is, as it is no doubt for almost all of us, the loss of her mother, whose dying, death, and funeral are the subject of several essays in this collection. But the mother’s spirit infuses many other essays not strictly devoted to her. In her youth, Roberts’ mother, who was raised in England, fought her way out of poverty by offering her services as a “good-time girl,” akin to Holly Golightly’s livelihood in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—at least, in the glossed-over Hollywood version of it. Roberts’ mother is a compassionate guardian—“the president of my fan club”—but also projects the shame from her “good-time girl” years onto Roberts when she begins dating. And “dating” is itself a glossed-over Hollywood word for some of Roberts’ early sexual encounters and entanglements, and their consequences. She is candid in her descriptions of the shame, pleasure, regret, and occasional mess of it all.

Roberts, whose previous collections include Almost Somewhere and Bad Tourist, is an “outdoorsy girl.” “I have spent my entire adult life living in the mountains so that when the perfect powder days arrive, I’ll be ready.” Her devotion to the slopes shapes both her teaching career and her relationships. “I decided that if you went skiing today, I was leaving,” announces one boyfriend, who dislikes her writing because it takes her focus away from him, and considers their life in Lake Tahoe a brief respite from “the real world.” His departure leaves her with the courage to create “the extraordinary life I could only fashion on my own. . . an untethered life of wandering the world.”

Yet even her love of outdoors and travel is encroached by shadows.

In the masterful essay “The Danger Scale,” Roberts juxtaposes the dark side of her beloved “powder days”—descriptions of the escalating scale of avalanche danger—with the painful examination of the erosion of a longtime friendship under the accumulating fractures of political differences. In “Queen of the Amazon,” Roberts travels, with her second husband Tom (“always up for an adventure”), for an expected “quintessential honeymoon” at the Ecolodge Paradiso in Marasha in Peru, only to find herself disheartened not by the perils of the jungle but by the disregard the natives have for the splendor and the dignity of the animals that surrounds them. Ancient trees sacred to the Mayans have been razed by their descendants for farmland—“you can’t eat the trees,” one guide tells Roberts. Terrified sloths, jaguars, and manatees are plucked from their habitats to be caged by minders and offered to tourists to pose with for photo ops.

I told myself I couldn’t cry over someone else’s trees. I didn’t stop to ask myself to whom the trees belonged; I didn’t have the words for my deep feelings of unease and loss, which I now recognize as ecological or environmental grief, a term that would not be common for another five years—the deep sadness, mixed with the helplessness, we feel when faced with environmental degradations and disaster.

This collection may sound like a bummer; it’s not. It is beautifully observed and realized, heartfelt and informed, self-deprecating and often wryly witty. These essays explore how the bodies we inhabit bring pleasure and shame. How the planet which hosts us is beautiful and terrible. How sometimes we cherish it, and sometimes we treat it as carelessly as we would a disdainful ex. How grief is the residue of love.
___

Elizabeth Bales Frank lives in Astoria, where she is writing a local history about the pandemic, gentrification, coffee, and dogs. Her most recent novel Censorettes was published in 2019 by Stonehouse Publishing. She works as a researcher in an international law firm and urges you to support your local libraries and librarians. Her website is www.elizafrank.com.

A Review of Sufiya Abdur-Rahman’s Heir to the Crescent Moon

April 15, 2022 § Leave a comment

By Debbie Hagan

As I listened to Sufiya Abdur-Rahman read from her memoir Heir to the Crescent Moon, an old curiosity awoke within me. As a teenager, I’d wanted to know about Islam, beyond Malcolm X. However, living in Kansas City’s suburbs, in the 1970s (pre-internet), my research was limited to the resources of the town library. In other words, I had to live with the itch of many unanswered questions.

In Heir to the Crescent Moon, author Abdur-Rahman describes how she and her three siblings grew up Muslim under the guidance of their parents, Black Power-era Islam converts. We see that Islam is more than just a religion, but a way of life: fasting, praying, studying Arabic, and attending the mosque.

Sepia-toned photos of Malcom X and Sufi scholar Hazrat Inayat Khan hung in the father’s office. He reads from the Qur’an, takes his prayer beads off his wall, and says a prayer with each bead, the “flattened tips of father’s thumb and forefinger pinched each globe then inched along to the next, the string of beads rotating in his grasp like stairs on an escalator.”

We witness Abdur-Rahman’s family’s devotion and how they bond in their worship, prayers, and deep love for one another.

Ironically, sometimes it’s the passions that unite people that also tear them apart. There’s no question about the father’s charisma and deep love for Allah and his children, but he’s haunted by his own past, a moody and mercurial man who uses corporal punishment in disciplining his children and his wife.

After seventeen years of marriage, the wife seeks a divorce, but discovers, divorce is not necessary. They were never legally married. Her husband never filed the marriage license.  

“With that I knew that technically, my siblings and I were all illegitimate,” writes Abdur-Rahman. “…it called into question my entire being.”

Part of her entire being was her religion. People would ask, “What kind of name is Sufiya Abdur-Rahman? It doesn’t sound very Christian.”

In fourth grade, her best friend tells her, “You don’t pray to the real God.”

Abdur-Rahman tries to explain that even if she refers to God as “Allah,” they’re the same God.

No, her friend argues, “You’re not gonna go to Heaven…. You can ask my Dad.”

“And you’re not gonna go to heaven echoed in my head as the familiar paralysis that gripped my vocal cords whenever I cried took over,” the author says. She’s the only Muslim in her school, except for her brother who’s in second grade. No one can help her. No one can speak for her.

I grew up in a religious family too; however, mine was Southern Baptist and I’m guessing not as devout as Abdur-Rahman’s family. Still, I understand the confusion and conflict religion can bring.  

For instance, our church, back in the late sixties, looked a lot like one of today’s mega churches. Pews circled around a giant aquarium-like tank, where our pastor dunked converts on Sunday morning, washing away  sins, preparing a spot in Heaven. Our pastor was a disciple of Jerry Falwell, and he had been our church’s  previous pastor.  

In 1973, leaders sold this church to Black Muslims, so it would become Muhammad Temple #30.

This confused me, because every Sunday morning our pastor pounded his fist into the pulpit, drumming into us that this idea that our Bible, our church was the only way into Heaven. So, if that were true, how could our church could be sold…particularly to people who worshipped differently?

A simple Google search today clarifies a lot I didn’t understand. Christianity and Islam are the two largest religions in the world and are both Abrahamic and monotheist.

In fact, Abdur Rahman’s father had grown up Catholic, and “one reason he had become Muslim was because Muslims recognize Christianity as a predecessor to Islam and Christ as a prophet of Allah.”

She continues, “It was their circular black, red, and green logo with a sword, a star and crescent, and Arabic script in the middle affixed to the door that had initially drawn him to the building…. That symbol was a combination of black and Muslim pride, the very things my father was reshaping his life around.”

There. the Inman gave his sermon in Arabic, then translated it in English. “He spoke of struggles in the black community—with justice, with jobs, with safety—and related them to stories of the Prophet Muhammad’s life,” writes Abdur-Rahman.

It’s not surprising that Abdur-Rahman won the Iowa Prize for Nonfiction. Heir to the Crescent Moon offers beautifully depicted characters and vivid and evocative scenes that cause readers to become invested in her family’s life and struggles, as they’re persistently guided by unswerving faith.
___

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, and Pleiades. Her essay “Portrait in Red” will appear in the April issue of  Dillydoun Review, and her essay “Lights Out” will appear in the June issue of Star 84 Review.

A Review of American Seoul: A Memoir by Helena Rho

April 8, 2022 § 2 Comments

By Jennifer Lang

It all starts by accident: a traumatic car crash one mundane morning after dropping off kids on the last day of summer camp in Pittsburgh. A pediatrician, Helena Rho stands up, rebuffs a paramedic telling her that she’s in shock, refuses the ambulance and ER, wrongly thinking she knows better, falsely believing she’s fine, and drives home. Not only does the accident leave her with lifelong debilitating pain, but it also serves as a harsh wake-up call to harsher truths about and traumas from being sexually harassed as a young girl in Uganda and years later in an American medical school; about being raised by an immigrant Korean mother with severe depression; about being married to an abusive man; about being unhappy in her chosen profession and her suppressed dream of writing; about feeling unloved by her family; about suffering racial discrimination in the workplace; and about choosing her American upbringing over her Korean heritage. That accident, which she describes in horrific slow-motion detail, serves as a long overdue, much-needed catalyst for change.

Change, expectations, and shame are recurring themes in Helena Rho’s memoir, American Seoul. Her parents bore four daughters and no living sons to carry on the family name. Because her father hailed from an aristocratic class and was “the jangsohn—the oldest son of the oldest son, that all-important, highest-ranking male of his generation, a patriarchal line that stretched back five hundred years”—they were burdened by shame. This led her father to uproot them to Uganda, where the dictator Idi Amin opened the country’s doors to Korean doctors. 

In Uganda, Helena lost her mother tongue, where her “home became a silent vacuum as my parents, who were uncomfortable speaking English, chose not to talk to us rather than stumble and sound foolish.” She was taught English. She was told to be a good girl. She said nothing after the son of a family friend as well as her English tutor sexually abused her. 

A few years later, after Amin issued exit visas, her family immigrated to the United States, where she does the majority of her schooling and becomes “the idiot who listened. My father, bereft of sons, insisted that one of his four girls had to become a doctor.” But from the moment Helena is accepted into medical school, she’s miserable, unable to withstand her parents’ scorn or disappointment, stifling her dreams.

Expectations pile one atop the other. All four daughters marry non-Korean men, “a moral crime…. My mother remained so opposed to this notion of tainting thousands of years of pure Korean blood that she does not attend Susan’s wedding, the first among the four sisters.”

Third in line, Helena is perceived, by her sisters and by the culture, as the most beautiful child, which perhaps explains why the other three resent her and refuse to help her when she later needs it. Then, Helena is expected to stay silent in her marriage to an unsupportive, unloving, narcissistic man. For decades, she’s trapped in her roles as wife, mother, daughter, sister, pediatrician with what seems like no way to break free. 

Change comes in the most unexpected way, through a phone call from a Korean woman, who convinces Helena to enroll her children in a Korean-language school at the church and to sign up for Korean at the University of Pittsburgh, where Helena is pursuing an MFA, through a scholarship to study the language one summer in her country of birth. 

In 2006, Helena meets Emo (her mother’s sister in Korean) and her first cousins, who welcome her with unconditional love and kindness, making Helena wonder: what if her parents had never left? What if she and her sisters had grown up there? How would their lives have been different?

Only after returning to her roots does Helena realize that she’s more like her mother,“who traversed oceans and entire continents… Yet she could not escape her self-imposed shame.” Helena, too, is ashamed of losing contact with her mentally-ill mother, of looking Korean but not sounding Korean, of telling her aunt and cousins she’ll return soon only for years to pass. 

Emo corrects her, “What happened isn’t your fault. How your mother chose to live her life has nothing to do with you or your sisters.” She tells Helena that her mother was willful and spoiled and their mother’s favorite, “if the two girls argued, Emo had to apologize no matter whose fault it was.” Helena never knew her mother had been the family favorite, had never “considered the burden of expectations that she carried.”

Helena does a beautiful job of depicting the pushes and pulls of being born in one country but being raised in another by foreign parents. Like her, I am from one place, but live in a very different other one. Her cultural insights and linguistic lessons make me think of mine, how they affect my daily life, the way I approach my world.

Sometimes I reach for books because of their covers or the titles. In this case, both are stunning. The homonym of Seoul/soul makes me smile at its spot-on perfection. Until that car crash, Helena was not in touch with, but in denial of her emotional part of human nature, the seat of her feelings or sentiments: her soul.
___

Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio. Her essays have appeared in the Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, Jennifer holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Assistant Editor for Brevity. When not at her desk, she is often on her yoga mat: practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003.

A Review of Peter Wayne Moe’s Touching This Leviathan

March 25, 2022 § Leave a comment

By Jonathan Frey

Once, we found a kestrel on a field edge. We were walking the dirt road that intersected a thousand acres of wheat, and the kestrel lay there on the margin, wings splayed. My wife picked him up, spread his wings, found beneath the downy chest the thrum of a heartbeat. She handed him to me, and it was like holding a breath in my hand. I had looked at many books about birds, admired paintings of kestrels from Audubon to Sibley. I had identified them atop utility poles by the bright plumage of the males. I had watched them soar over these same wheat fields, dive for mice and voles. But holding the body pressed the limits of my knowledge.

I’ve known Peter Moe for a long time, and among the most winsome of his many winsome characteristics is his capacity for fascination. Objects of Peter’s fascination that I’ve witnessed include: baseball, Aristotle, the Eucharist, and—most abidingly—whales. So, it was not surprising to learn Peter had written a book about whales. Nor was it surprising to read it and find that his delightful book about whales is not, in the end, a book about whales at all. Touching This Leviathan is a book about and animated by fascination, a book about and undergirded by deep curiosity, a book as concerned with the limits of our ability to know the world as it is with the world we might come to know.

In Touching This Leviathan, Moe welcomes us into a catalogue of his winsome curiosity. With him, we visit Moby-Dick and Jonah, the shores of the Salish Sea and the nuances of composition theory, a fertility clinic,  and the viscera of a gray whale. All of this is somehow of a piece in this book, which might be called a lyric epistemology.

In each of Moe’s six movements, he draws the reader into what he calls “the work of knowing.” The first movement begins with a whale sighting, but turns quickly to books. We visit Moe’s sundry collection of whale books, along with Thoreau, Moby-Dick, composition theorist Stacey Waite, and the Book of Job. Each of these discursions is a distinct exploratory step. Moe pushes, against the notion that any single variety of knowledge—taxonomic, literary, practical—is sufficient to “the work of knowing.” The aim is to lead the reader to what Waite calls “the already failing extent of our various knowledges.” “It is there,” Moe writes, “where knowledge fails, that possibility resides.”

The wonder is that he covers so much heady intellectual territory in a voice that remains companionable and welcoming. No doubt, this is attributable to the fact that Moe, far from a didact in spite of his expertise, adopts the tone of fellow sojourner, sharing equally from what he has gleaned and what he has as yet failed to glean.

As the book unfolds, movement by movement, Moe works closer and closer to something like an epistemic process: We must first embrace the limitations of “our various knowledges” and face the treacherous space of mystery. Once we have done that, we learn to watch and to wait, to notice and to name, but the pinnacle of knowledge in Moe’s epistemology is in the intimate space of bodily experience. In his final movements, Moe balances a close reading of the Book of Jonah with a frank and tender recounting of his and his wife’s struggle with infertility, and goes on to narrate his experience of flensing a gray whale with his students.

Touching This Leviathan is a chronicle of Moe’s curiosity, a celebration of the simultaneous possibility and impossibility of knowledge. But curiosity is more than the subject of the book: Moe has built curiosity into the very structure. He adopts the associative movement of the lyric essay throughout the book to create a vivid mosaic of modalities and subjects that seems like a formal echo of that epistemic process. In the fifth movement, we begin with a clip of dialogue in a fertility clinic—bad news—before launching into a long discussion of various accounts of humans swallowed by whales, with particular attention to dubious attempts to prove the plausibility of the Biblical account of Jonah. Then we are back to Moe’s account of his and his wife’s response to the bad news from the fertility clinic. Moe is sounding the parameters of our capacity to know even the intimacies of our own bodies, our own experiences.

Here, then, is the space of knowledge Moe invites us into: to touch the ineffable, to scan the inscrutable, and to recognize that in doing so we are only standing at the threshold and peering into something vastly larger than all our attempts to tie it down with language.

Holding the kestrel that day, I did not know him. The closest I came was when we set him back in the field and walked on only to return an hour later and find him gone. I like to imagine he was resurrected, but likely as not he was scavenged. This is the space Moe leans into, “where knowledge fails,” where “possibility resides.”
___

Jonathan Frey holds an MFA from Eastern Washington University, and is now associate professor of English at North Idaho College, teaching creative writing and composition. His nonfiction has appeared in a handful of online and regional publications. He lives in Spokane, Washington, with his wife and daughters, and has just completed work on his first novel.

A Review of Randon Billings Noble’s A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays

March 21, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Celia Jeffries

When I first taught the essay, it was in the form of five paragraphs: a nice model for young writers used to counting on their fingers.

When I taught high school English, we pushed beyond five paragraphs to more formal essays: persuasive, descriptive, narrative, and expository, all of which may be as necessary as learning table manners, but each of which sometimes felt like writing with one hand folded in the lap.

In college I taught the requisite freshman composition essays: analytical, argumentative, compare and contrast, and, if the school was progressive enough, the personal essay.

For the past few years, I’ve been teaching writing workshops in a literary arts center, working with adults who had survived the five-paragraph essay and all the proscriptive forms handed out in English classes across the land, but each of whom sensed there was another—perhaps better—way to present their thoughts on paper.

I went back to some of my favorite essayists: Joan Didion, John McPhee, Calvin Trillin, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, James Baldwin, E.B. White, and M.F.K. Fisher. They weren’t arguing or persuading or comparing and contrasting. Or if they were, they were not following a rigid formula to do so. They were simply speaking their mind—on the page. Sometimes with humor, sometimes with rage, but always with their own engaging voice. I kept reading, moving through the “new journalism,” the “nonfiction novel,”  reveling in how writers were pushing the boundaries and playing with form. Along came “flash” pieces and “hermit crab” essays and prose that looks and feels like poetry, and essays that break out of academic labels to make the reader see and feel the world in new ways.

Finally, along came Randon Billings Noble and her anthology A Harp in the Stars, An Anthology of Lyric Essays. Acknowledging that there is no widespread agreement on what it is or what to call it, Noble has gathered the slippery term lyric essay and folded it into the warm arms of four different forms: flash, segmented, braided, and hermit crab. In her introduction she refers back to mythology, to Orpheus playing the lyre. “His music was so powerful it could almost—almost—raise the dead.”

Lyric essays, Noble says,

have the same power to soothe, to harrow, to persuade, to move, to raise, to rouse, to overcome. Like Orpheus and his songs, lyric essays try something daring. They rely more on intuition than exposition. They often use image more than narration. They question more than answer. But despite all this looseness, the lyric essay still has the responsibilities of any essay: to try to figure something out, to play with ideas, to show a shift in thinking.

Noble says she came to define a lyric essay as “a piece of writing with a visible/stand-out/unusual structure that explores/forecasts/gestures to an idea in an unexpected way.”

Thank you Randon Billings Noble. This anthology is a treasure chest of daring ways to take one’s voice to the page. It opens with two stunning flash essays (defined by Noble as one thousand words or fewer) by Diane Seuss and Jericho Parms, and then off the page flies Sarah Minor’s segmented essay “Vide” that literally must be seen to be believed. “Apocalypse Logic” by Elissa Washuta and “Woven” by Lidia Yuknavitch offer startling braided essays, while Sarah Einstein offers the laugh-out-loud (well, parts of it made me laugh out loud) segmented essay “Self-Portrait in Apologies.”

It’s hard to highlight just a few of the forty-four essays in this collection, each of which “stands out” and offers the reader an idea in an “unexpected way.” Noble has said she’s fond of the six craft essays included because they are “lyric essays about lyric essays; they do what they’re talking about as they talk about it.” As if forty-four outstanding essays and six craft essays were not enough, Noble closes out the anthology with a section titled “Meditations” where she gives the authors the last word: each contributor adds their own short meditation on the lyric essay.

My copy of A Harp in the Stars is already dog-eared and covered with post-it notes and will be at top of my syllabus.

____

Celia Jeffries is the author of Blue Desert, a finalist in both the 2021 IPNE literary fiction awards and the 2021 Sarton historical fiction awards. Her prose has appeared in Writer’s ChronicleSolsticelitmag.com, Mom Egg Review, Puerto del Sol, and other journals.

A Review of Scarlett Thomas’ 41-Love

March 17, 2022 § Leave a comment

By Kelsey Cleveland

I deflated as if a service ace had whizzed past me when I discovered Scarlett Thomas (Oligarchy) had written a memoir about her return to her childhood love of tennis as a 41-year-old. An essay on the same topic awaited my edits in my drafts folder. Then I rushed to get a copy of 41-Love: On Addictions, Tennis and Refusing to Grow Up to read how the experience of the British novelist compared to mine in the United States.

By the second page of the Prologue, I couldn’t put down the addictive read. At first, Thomas’ experience mirrored my return to the tennis courts in many ways, including her technique:

I have no idea how much is wrong with the way I hit the ball. My whole technique is modeled on the way the cool older guys used to play at the local hard courts in Chelmsford when I was a kid. Flat, low, skimming the net.

I felt as if Thomas witnessed my first lesson in over two decades played when she described her session standing far behind the baseline, hitting groundstrokes with Coach Dan. “I am just pleased I can hit the ball at all, that I can keep a rally going with this coach.” Like me, she left her lesson at the local leisure centre “…happy and complete in some way I haven’t experienced for a long time, aching to play again as soon as possible but with various muscles beginning to go into spasm.”

Thomas throws herself into the sport playing every day and improving her technique and fitness with coaching sessions. She also joins the local tennis league. The highly competitive woman soon wins a singles trophy of the first amateur tournament she entered. Again, her experience reminded me of my own. Thomas and I preferred playing singles over doubles, a rarity in women over 40 in England and the United States. We both couldn’t imagine playing in a league when we started playing tennis again and won the singles title of the first amateur tournament we entered.

Soon after her win, Thomas met her literary agent in a busy London pub. I laughed out loud when her agent, David Miller, didn’t recognize her in the newspaper photo of her tennis tournament win. Thomas shared her plan to write a tennis book during her sabbatical, which gave her an excuse to devote more time to her hobby. “I’m going to spend 2014 playing tennis and I’m going to see how far I can get. In a year. As a forty-one-year-old.” He asked if she could potentially enter Wimbledon. As a writer, I agreed that would make a great narrative arc, but I didn’t think it was possible as a tennis player.

Despite the book’s subtitle having the word addiction in it, I thought this book would be an upbeat sports memoir told from the perspective of an amateur pursuing the sport rather than the reflections of a famous athlete. I imagined the protagonist would face challenges, and then the book would end with a major win on or off of the tennis court. In a New York Times interview, Thomas went into the project thinking the same thing. 

Scarlett Thomas’ interest in the sport turned into a time-consuming and expensive obsession. Between coaching sessions, hitting sessions, and matches, she spent four to five hours a day playing tennis. Plus, she had sessions with a personal trainer, time on the rowing machines in the gym, Pilates, and yoga classes. She also traveled the country to play in tournaments, stay in hotels, and get massages to recover. When Thomas arrived on court, she wore the latest designer tennis outfit by Stella McCartney for Adidas and Asics shoes to face either fellow middle-aged players or sometimes teenage opponents with mothers her age in the stands.

I rooted for Thomas as her quest took her from the Indoor Tennis Centre near her seaside home in Kent to the storied grass courts of the All England Club. Along the way, Thomas deftly wove in scenes about her childhood, the death of a beloved pet, and her parents as she did almost everything possible in her desperate desire to win. At the start, she had no Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) ranking as an over 40 player in Kent. Her meteoric rise in four months took her to second in her county, sixth in Great Britain, and 131 in the world for her age bracket.

My heart thumped with excitement as she arrived for the Seniors’ Wimbledon tournament. “I go through a door that says PLAYER’S ENTRANCE and feel impossibly excited. I’m a player! At Wimbledon!” She continued, “I feel like I am not just being allowed to go backstage, but actually to be part of the production.”

The sports memoir turned into a dark one about mental health challenges as readers witness in real-time as Thomas loses in the semifinal and then suffers a nervous breakdown when she returns home. Her obsession came with a cost, which led to her disastrous fall.

Soon after Wimbledon, she wrote:

I am rubbish. I will soon officially enter the national top ten in my age group, but I feel as if I can barely play the game. I’m stupid, pathetic, a loser. I must now give up tennis, this ridiculous passion. I’m too old, too inexperienced, too prone to psychological collapse.

In the postscript, Thomas writes, “I have now pretty much made peace with the fact that I was a bit of an idiot in 2014, but I still don’t know what actually ‘happened’ to me.”

Her tennis adventure ended when she quit the sport. I highly recommend 41-Love to fellow tennis fans, sports fans, or anyone dealing with the challenges of the middle-aged body or mental health issues.

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Kelsey Cleveland is a writer, who after studying Japanese at Smith College and Nanzan University, spent eight years living in Kobe, Japan.  Her personal essay “Listen to the Waves” received honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest 86th Annual Writing Competition. Several of her tiny truths have won Creative Nonfiction’s micro-essay contests and been published in In Case You Missed It Monthly. Cleveland’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Press Pause, Monologging, Hippocampus Magazine, The Ekphrastic Review, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, and the Sankei Shimbun (in Japanese). She is currently working on Waving Hello, Bowing Goodbye: A Dual Love Story with Japan and a Man, a travel memoir about navigating conflicting desires to pursue a childhood dream to live in Japan. She lives with her husband and teenage son outside of Portland, Oregon, where she works as Cultural Programs Manager at Portland Japanese Garden. Find her at kelseycleveland.com or connect with her on Twitter @kerushi_san.

A Review of Knocked Down: A High-Risk Memoir by Aileen Weintraub

March 11, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Jennifer Lang

Last Saturday, I stretched out on my L-shaped sienna red sofa with a cup of Earl Grey and almond milk and read, and read, and read. I read before breakfast, after lunch, before dinner. I read from page 1 until page 293, from beginning to end.

From the first chapter of Aileen Weintraub’s debut memoir Knocked Down, we understand the stakes are high. A city girl from Brooklyn married to a country boy, she is living in his family’s old farmhouse, pregnant and faced with the prospect of full bed rest, home alone most of the day, craving a conversation with the one person who can get her through this time except he isn’t available. Only three pages in and I needed to know: would she and the baby survive the next five months? Who would take care of her? Who was that mysterious person she longed for?

If I had to pick one thing that made me continuously want to turn the page, it was Weintraub’s wicked sense of humor. She pokes fun at herself, at her parents, at her doctors, at her fibroids, at her cervix, at her uterus. In chapter 5, Monsters, and 18 weeks pregnant, Weintraub schedules an emergency appointment due to intense pelvic pain. “The term incompetent cervix was bandied about; as if I didn’t have enough self-esteem issues, now my cervix was incompetent. That was like five more years of therapy right there…All we need to do is throw in hostile uterus, another offensive medical terms, and between the two, we’d have the workings of a perfectly dysfunctional marriage.” As she refers to real and made-up medical jargon, we wonder if she’s using these body parts as foreshadow or metaphor. 

In the next chapter, Mr. Produce Man, Weintraub recounts the parental pressure to get married, which she claims started at age four, and the direness of dating. Still single, she moved to a small town in the Hudson Valley, where she worked on a memoir called The Ten-Second Seduction: “The premise was that when you meet a man, you know within ten seconds whether or not you must absolutely see that person again… naked…Every chapter would be named after a single identifying characteristic of a man I had dated… for example, Mr. Spirituality… Dr. Broccoli… Motorcycle Man… Military Man… Green Underwear Guy.” Until, finally, she meets the one: Mr. Produce Man.

But the humor only goes so far to reveal the truth: buried pain and deep loss. Weintraub shares all of it. We know from the second chapter, A GORE-TEX Primer, she has a defect that her family won’t let her forget and that will come back to bite her no matter how hard she fights it; she’s a quitter. First Brownies then Hebrew school then college in Arizona and most recently, her job in a children’s publishing company in Manhattan. But her parents, primarily her father, cannot hide their disappointment or judgment. To figure out her next move, she escapes to Alaska, where two older Canadian men offer to suspend her “over a deep, plummeting crevasse so I could peer into oblivion” at which point she has an epiphany that sets the stage for so much of what follows. There she sees “both the permanent and the temporary, the sharp edges, the sacredness of it all… After Alaska, I began looking for a way out of my comfort zone and back into the sense of reverence I had felt on that glacier. Perhaps there was a life for me beyond the city.” Upon her return, she enrolls in AmeriCorps, packs again, and heads into the wilderness. But her father’s unexpected surgery makes her worry. A premonition or pull brings her back. The man she considers her best friend dies, making her doubt everything she ever imagined and planned, hoped and dreamed.

While the funny and witty come and go, the conflict and struggles simmer and rumble. We learn that her mother, brother, and she were observant, Conservative-affiliated Jews at her mother’s insistence, while her father, raised Reform, only begrudgingly went along. She uses bacon to show their differences: “Reformed—eat bacon and love it; Conservative—eat bacon only in diners; Orthodox—never touch bacon but secretly wonder what it tastes like; Ultra-Orthodox—no way…; and Chassidic—what is this bacon of which you speak?”

We learn that she and her only sibling had never gotten along well, but that after their father passes, her brother is one of the only people left she can still count as family. That her father wasn’t as emotionally strong and unconditionally loving as she always thought. That her mother stuck by him while he battled with crippling depression and irrational fear and off-and-on joblessness. We learn that her best friend Rachel, an Orthodox Jew, cuts off all ties after Weintraub’s relationship with the non-Jewish Produce Man becomes serious.

Twenty weeks in bed brings out Weintraub’s strengths and weaknesses. She becomes as resourceful as she can from a prone position, trying to work and help alleviate the financial burden on her husband, trying to work and help manage his store. She also becomes needy in ways she cannot control which puts such a strain on their relationship, making her question herself: can she stay—or should she quit? Making me read until I reach the end and find the answers.
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Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio and hunts for a special home for her unconventional memoir-in-vignettes. “Crossroads: neither here nor there” is a finalist in Chestnut Review’s Prose Chapbook Competition. Her essays have appeared in the Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, Jennifer holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Assistant Editor for Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. When not at her desk, she is often on her yoga mat: practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003.

A Review of Allison K Williams’ Seven Drafts

February 18, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Debbie Hagan

Imagine sitting at your computer for hours, working on your memoir, confident that you’ve made real progress, then a gremlin sneaks in and whispers in your ear: That isn’t a story. What a terrible beginning. You’re wasting your time. No one will read this.

You could give up or you could turn to Allison K Williams’ Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. 

When I thumb through my copy’s dog-eared pages, I’ll most always find that Williams has something encouraging to say, such as,

If you’re at the ‘I can believe I even started this crazy project stage, revive your enthusiasm by picking a smaller element from the Technical Draft, like dialogue tags or chapter endings. Work through those challenges to feel some progress and get back into the writing groove.

I do this, and, sure enough, my gremlin slumps out the door.

Williams is more than a desktop therapist. She hands you a blueprint to build your memoir from the ground up…in seven drafts. Maybe that sounds like a lot, but chances are you’re going to write seven drafts (at least) anyway. Why not follow a proven plan?  

Williams has worked with thousands of writers as a book and writing coach (some resulting in deals with the Big-Five publishers). She also runs Rebirth Your Book and Rebirth Your Writing retreats (in various locations around the world) and is a Brevity staffer.

In Seven Drafts, she writes as if she has pulled up a seat beside you, guiding you as you create a narrative arc, capture readers’ attention and hold it until the end. 

Step one is the “Vomit Draft,” which Hemingway famously referred to as the shitty first draft.  “Get it out get it out! It doesn’t matter if all the words are spelled rite,” Williams writes.

Whether you’re meeting Williams for the first time in the pages of this book or you’ve encountered her at a conference, workshop, or online seminar, you’ll discover she’s quick-witted, self-deprecating, and always your cheerleader. In this first draft (whatever you wish to call it), the goal is to express all your ideas without editing, shaping, carving beautiful sentences, drawing plot lines, or pruning. The goal is to get down all the raw material so you can shape it into a story.

Next, Williams helps you work through building your story. In the Story Draft you’ll address key questions: What does the protagonist want? What’s stopping them from succeeding? What happens if the protagonist does not succeed?  Williams writes:

Good memoir shares many elements with good fiction: a compelling protagonist, on an interesting journey past powerful obstacles and/or against a fully realized villain, who experiences permanent change within herself, while changing her world.

Next the Character Draft. Here, you’ll develop your protagonist into a well-rounded, intriguing character who engages readers’ imagination and compels them to read on. If you’re successful, readers will be riveted, and they’ll be compelled to turn the page to see if the protagonist succeeds.

Williams reminds us, “To write a truthful memoir, we must speculate—or ask—what happened when we were offstage. We must seek out what we don’t know.” In other words, you’ll probably need to do research. Not only do you need to have your facts straight, but it more information can help you add depth and detail to your characters and plot.

Four more steps: Technical Draft; Personal Copy Edit; Friend Read; and Editor Read. Plus, there’s a chapter on publishing.

In these 342 pages, Williams gives clear, succinct advice with diagrams and tips that work for both memoirists and novelists.

You may ask, isn’t there a Berlin wall between fiction and nonfiction?  

Yes…and no. Whether you’re telling your own story or inventing one, storytelling requires plot, inciting events, drama, and resolution. A memoir can be slow and ponderous like a long poem…or it can be a page-turner that engrosses the reader that it’s hard to put down. Think about Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, Tara Westover’s Educated, and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life.

Memoirs and fiction both rely on good storytelling: a compelling protagonist who’s on an interesting journey, facing obstacles and/or a villain, and experiencing major change.

Allison addresses fiction and nonfiction alike in writing about what you don’t know:

Writing what we want to know can be even more powerful than writing what we already know. Research beyond a novelist’s experience opens doors for interesting characters and new plot twists. For memoirists, genuinely considering a question like Why did my mother treat me like that? can allow us to resolve the past as well as creating a complex, nuanced picture of our personal history.

She also helps when the gremlins try to convince you, No one wants to read your story. Others have already written about it. Not true, Williams says. “It’s not originality that makes an idea compelling, but the specific expression of that idea,” she writes. Every person’s story evolves into a unique quest to find meaning and understanding. That’s why you can write on a topic that others have written about, and yours is different.

Some writers say, But I want to write what I want to write the way I want to write it. I’ve done that once before. This time, I’m enlisting Williams, through her book, as my Sherpa. She’s traveled this way before and, from what I can see, knows the way.  
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Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity, and a writer and educator. 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.

Shelf Life

February 16, 2022 § 8 Comments

By Sarah M. Wells

Today, I began a book a writer friend of mine wrote over a decade ago (he published it 12 years ago, so probably it was written even more years earlier). I bought it in 2012 at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, where we met (I think for the first time?) and walked with Brian Doyle past tennis courts along thinly shaded asphalt paths in search of the auditorium. We took the long way (we were lost).

I have been meaning to read Quotidiana by Patrick Madden ever since, but it’s sat on my shelf, sandwiched between Mackall and Mairs, its spine uncracked, its pages still pressed together. Other books have been read and finished in the decade since I bought this, probably hundreds of books, even, but yesterday, when I finished reading Bewilderment, a novel by Richard Powers that reaches far into the universe and deep within the inner world of the mind, I wanted something else. Something nonfiction. Something meandering and pondering and humble.

Yes! Essays! That is what this mood demands. The higher priority to-read books that blink hopefully from their stack just to the left of my laptop are all nonfiction, but only two are essays, and one is Quotidiana. Perhaps it’s time for Quotidiana, I told myself.

Call it intuition, luck, serendipity, or the prejudiced eye of the mind’s hankering, but I think some books find us when we most need them. The spirit in a book might be quiet for a while, maybe years, maybe longer, before the spirit within us hears its beckoning.

What did I say? It’s been 12 years since Madden published Quotidiana, and I’ve owned it for a decade, yet today, the day when I’ve felt low and moody about writing anything worthwhile ever again, when I’ve spent days thinking I have nothing to say that is important, I’m reminded of the mundane, the quotidian, how much I love the essay’s humble hunt for meaning amidst the minor messes of our lives, the essayist’s meandering stroll through thoughts the way Patrick and Brian and I meandered our way around a college campus with no idea where we were going, knowing we’d know our destination well enough when we arrived, but even if we never arrived, the walk was enough.

I only pulled myself away from Patrick’s first few pages to write this, and then I think I’ll go back to it, because not only did I need the familiar “I” of the essayist to remind me how much I love to write like I think and think as I write, but I also needed to be reminded of shelf life.

My own essay collection / memoir has been out for almost two months. Why haven’t you all read it yet?! My book is forever before me in my mind. Who is reading it? When will they tell me about what they thought? Will they review it? Do they hate it and are embarrassed to say so? Are they avoiding reviewing it because they can’t be honest? Aren’t they ever and always thinking about my life and the story I decided to share, the way I am always and ever thinking about my life and the story I decided to share?

No, no they are not, silly girl. They are doing what you have done with hundreds of other books. If they bought it, they shelved it with the good intention of reading it someday, and promptly moved on to unload the dishwasher or enter the wi-fi password for one of their children’s friends. Even more likely they haven’t bought it at all, but maybe someday they will.

A book is not like a blog post, or a magazine article, or even an essay you published once in a journal. A book has shelf life. Its shelf life might be short, or maybe it will latch onto the coattails of time and ride along into other generation’s hands. Maybe its shelf life will be a decade. Maybe it will make it fifty years. Maybe it will find its way into a library where someone stumbles upon it and it calls to them. Or maybe its life on this shelf is for this moment.

The point is, you can only do what you can do to get the word about your book into the world. You can only show up, bring the self you put on the page, mention that you have a book, and hope it lands on their front porch in a brown package. From there, it’s up to the spirit that dictates which books one will read next. From there, it’s in the hands of the reader to discern when it’s time to read.

And once you’ve done all that showing up and being yourself and mentioning your book in the most humbly egotistical way possible, go back to the place you began. Keep writing your way into and out of your mind’s eye, forgetting how much you want to say something important and remembering instead that the most important things leak out of strange, mundane places, like cups of tea, or sweet potatoes, or cool spring walks with other writers in Grand Rapids. You never know, you never know until you show up, until you begin where you began, again.

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Sarah M. Wells is the author of five books, most recently a memoir-in-essays, American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation. She is a freelance marketing content writer and also writes regularly for Root & Vine News and God Hears Her, a blog from Our Daily Bread. She lives in Ashland, Ohio, with her husband, a dozen fish, three children, two westies, and one bearded dragon named Joey. sarahmariewells.com

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